at the Vic Theater
One look at the cast of this production and you realize that Hair is a ridiculous anachronism. I mean, they’re all dressed up in fringed vests and bell-bottoms and headbands, trying hard to look like hippies, but they really don’t have a clue. They’re too young. They don’t know about 1968 any more than the original cast knew about 1948. The guys are wearing wigs. The gals look like Young Republicans for Jesus. And no one seems able to distinguish Hair from Pippin, or Showboat, for that matter. They’re in a “period piece,” all dressed up and nowhere to go.
The most ironically revealing moment of the show is the once-controversial nude scene. This comes at the high point of the “Be-in.” A few women, and a larger number of men, strip down as a form of protest. It’s meant to say something about the sacredness of flesh, the bare truth, the willingness to expose oneself utterly. But it’s also the falsest moment of the show, because the men are still wearing their wigs. And it’s that last shred of costume, the wig, that makes a lie of everything. This musical is called Hair, am I right? This isn’t Hair. This is Hairpiece.
If Hair was ever anything other than the Broadway exploitation of a misunderstood subculture, it was because it captured something of the spirit of its times. Now, those times are gone and the spirit is dead. This cast is obviously in no position to revive it. And so the revival becomes a matter of style, jury-rigged by six (count ’em) choreographers and a host of sound, set, lighting, and costume designers. Throw in some lasers, fog machines, more than 100 televisions, five video screens, and a professionally innocuous band, and what you’re left with is simply a big-budget musical, as extravagant and meaningless as they come.
To its credit, the current Hair reproduces a fraction of the musical numbers at least as well as that original cast album gathering dust on your shelf. “Air,” “I Got Life,” and “White Boys” are cases in point. One song is even vastly improved: “My Conviction.” This is the number sung by Margaret, the sweet old tourist lady, and here it’s performed with gusto, in falsetto, by Rob Helms. Very nice job. But the best number–and out of 32 songs the only one that evoked any nostalgia, from me anyway–is “Walking in Space.” Maybe it’s the music. More probably it’s the flying effects, which allow a few characters to float and even somersault, all very serenely, in the air. But, really, I can’t say for sure whether this number reminded me of those glory days of the 60s or of some earlier memory, perhaps of Peter Pan.
The majority of the musical numbers, however, are downright pathetic. Most absurd of all is “I Believe in Love,” in which Sheila (played by Frances Epsen) grabs her crotch when she sings “my cunt-try.” Execrable contenders are “Easy to Be Hard” (in which Sheila sounds like Joan Armatrading), “Hair” (sung by David Marshall, as Berger, in a Morgan Fairchild wig), and the saccharine enema of all time, “Good Morning Star Shine.” Some of these songs just can’t be salvaged. They were stupid to begin with, and they haven’t aged well. Others have potential but are compromised either by the culturally unaware cast or by the choreographers, who gimmick them up with a lot of dry humping and chorus-line reproductions of the frug and the twist.
The truly odd thing about the choreography is that it’s so uniform. You’d expect to see something with more anarchy, and more leeway for the individual dancers. During “Colored Spade,” for instance, the white members of the tribe get down on all fours and hump like dogs, in unison. I’m still trying to figure that out. Only once during the show did I see a dancer enter into the moment and the music as an individual. It stood out like an unbroken thumb. The rest of the time the chorus is engineered into patented cliches: a big sea urchin, a symmetrical formation of scaffold hangers, a looping configuration of stoned hippies simulating bird flight. Somewhere along the line, the theme of individuality and free expression got lost.
This isn’t to say that the cast can’t dance. Overall, they’re competent, and a couple of the black guys are especially good, although if you’ve seen one Nigerian hoedown number, you’ve seen them all. Most of the cast can sing, too, even if none stops the show. What they can’t do is act. You look up there onstage and you see all these faces smiling or pouting or protesting–whatever the occasion superficially calls for–and it kind of makes you think of the Partridge family. Maybe if they weren’t dolled up in Nancy Missimi’s humiliating costumes, maybe if they improvised beyond this essentially vapid script, maybe if they had some relevant life experience to draw upon, they might have developed–who knows?–characters.
The only credible character in the show is Claude, played by Brian James. He has more script to work with. After all, it’s Claude’s show: he’s the one who gets drafted and killed, and it’s Claude’s dilemma that acts as a focal point for the rest of the cast’s tribal love and countercultural anger. But James, unlike the rest, avoids the pitfall of trying to figure out what constitutes hippiedom and concentrates instead on Claude’s insecurity and passivity about his impending induction. The other major characters–Berger, Sheila, Woof–are cartoons, as representative of the acid generation as Maynard G. Krebs was of the beat generation. Their performances are insulting stereotypes, beneath criticism.
Indeed, this entire production is beneath criticism as a cultural celebration. At the big “Be-in,” for instance, one of the protesters carries a sign that reads, “Flowers’ Lib.” Give me a break. Why do Hair at all if this is your conception of the 60s? Producer Michael Butler’s reasons aren’t hard to second-guess. He certainly cashed in on the original Broadway production, and this time, “tie-dyed Michael Butler T-shirts” are on sale in the lobby. As for director Dominic Missimi, he just seems to enjoy knocking out musicals in a workmanlike way, without much regard for the product. For Hair, Missimi uses his usual assembly line: his wife designed the costumes, and he’s culled the cast largely from his own students at Northwestern and from productions that he’s directed at Marriott’s Lincolnshire. Cash and career–the household gods of the 80s.
What Hair comes down to is a high-tech, low-IQ musical without either spirit or cultural repercussion. So if you want to revisit the 60s, your 25 bucks would be better spent on blotter acid. But drugs, casual sex, and anything politically left of Nancy Reagan are all rather passe these days. And one of the strangest things about this revival is that it doesn’t acknowledge this huge change in our national attitude. We see Hair intact, yet dessicated. If you were, perchance, to attach any meaning to this mummified musical, you’d more than likely come to view the 60s as a failed experiment in unenlightened excess, and poking the bewigged corpse, you could snigger to your heart’s content. It makes me want to ask, what the hell have you got, 1988, that makes you so damn superior?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.