Pacific Musical Theatre

at the Athenaeum Theatre

Make no mistake: the revival of Hair now at the Athenaeum Theatre is a college show, semipro at best. The cast–mostly current and former students at California State University, Fullerton, working under the guidance of some of the school’s teachers–lack the poise and consistency of more seasoned performers; and though several show considerable promise, I’d be hard-pressed to say whether any of them is destined to join the ranks of Diane Keaton, Melba Moore, Joe Mantegna, and other stars who got their start in the original Broadway and national companies of this “tribal love-rock musical” about hippie life by Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot.

But despite or because of its lack of polish, Pacific Musical Theatre’s Hair is a touching, thought-provoking rendition of this often misunderstood work, whose power lies more in its universal theme than in its identification with a short-lived counterculture. Far from being a raucous rock ‘n’ roll celebration of sexual and political anarchy, Hair is a secular passion play steeped in Catholic imagery despite its Hare Krishna trappings. Its hero–Claude, a draftee sent to Vietnam to die for America’s sins–is the sacrificial lamb groomed for martyrdom in a series of communal rituals and finally put to rest with a hymn of mourning whose minor key and compelling beat highlight the yearning of its prayerful lyric: “Let the sunshine in.” Despite the mostly accurate 60s hairstyles and costumes (bell-bottoms, flower-print dresses, African tunics, bleached blue jeans, granny glasses), this is a timeless, tuneful tragedy about the questing, questioning spirit of disillusioned, rebellious youth–a theme as ancient as Orestes and The Bacchae and as contemporary as Trainspotting and Rent.

Directed by Dan Kern and punchily accompanied by an onstage band under Bobby Naffarette’s musical direction, this Hair is free of the flashy slickness that bloated the 20th-anniversary revival in 1988 at the Vic Theatre. Though Michael Butler, the Chicagoan who produced Hair on Broadway in 1968, produced both the Vic revival and the current one, this time around there are no lasers, video monitors, Vegas choreography, or Peter Pan flying effects. Good riddance. In their place is a welcome sense of gravity. The youngsters Butler has imported may be short on charisma, but they have plenty of heart and conviction to bolster their sometimes rough but always ready voices. While they lack the rage that the Vietnam war brought out in Hair’s original casts, they convey compassion for their characters’ fumbling search for love, approval, and self-understanding as they try to build a utopian alternative to a repressive, hypocritical system.

The attempt is doomed to fail, of course. Hair depicts that fact, and the reason for it: human beings’ dishonesty. The characters in Hair are liars; they lie to one another and to themselves. In their interaction is mirrored the lies of a society that promises peace, freedom, and equality while it destroys lives in war, repression, and racism.

Hair’s hippies are more sympathetic and less malignant than the system they’ve dropped out of, but they’re just as dishonest–or deluded. Claude proclaims his opposition to the war by burning his draft card–except it’s really his library card. (He also likes to pretend he’s from “Manchester, England, England, across the Atlantic sea,” when in fact he’s a working-class Polish-American.) Berger sings of his enduring love for his lost “16-year-old virgin” girlfriend, (the Ma) Donna, but he’s cold and abusive to Sheila, the New York University student he lives with. Sheila in turn thinks she’s a liberated radical, but she reveals herself to be a dependent victim of love in her jazzy ballad “Easy to Be Hard” (gorgeously sung by Danielle Bisutti, whose eloquent alto and cool beauty recall the young Andrea Marcovicci). Hud, the African-American stud, flaunts racist stereotypes in a not quite convincing attempt to exorcise them.

And Woof, the long-haired adolescent who insists he’s “not a homosexual,” is in fact a blatant latent seething with confused lust and love for Claude (though he sublimates his gay inclinations by advertising an acceptable crush on androgynous Mick Jagger). It’s Woof, played with a nice balance of openness and guardedness by Jesse T. Swimm, who sings “Sodomy,” that deadpan litany of sexual taboos, which ends with the singer confessing his own isolation: “Masturbation can be fun.” (Joycelyn Elders would agree.) And it’s Woof who pronounces a flaky benediction on the tribe–and the audience–that draws equally on Catholic doctrine and civil law, including the pledge to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Like many of the script’s flip appropriations of institutional dogma, this reveals an underlying longing to believe in the values of God and country, which war and racism have exposed to be shams.

Echoing the show’s preoccupation with deception is a fascination with flashy, false pop-culture imagery. This production effectively milks campy humor from several numbers, including the medley of “Black Boys” (praise for the sexual prowess of African-American men sung by a white girl group, here dressed like Petula Clark/Lulu wannabes) and “White Boys” (an ode to Caucasian cuties by four black Supremes imitators in blond wigs). “My Conviction” has a middle-American mom extolling the values of tolerance while revealing herself to be a leather dominatrix. But there’s a bitter edge under the laughter, paving the way for the sprawling, messy, but powerful hallucination sequence in act two, when America’s bloody history is enacted as a cartoon pageant by hippies running on- and offstage dressed as George Washington, Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, Abe Lincoln (played by a black woman), John Wilkes Booth, self-immolating Buddhist monks, and rampaging nuns. Claude watches the nightmare unfold in a druggy stupor until, incongruously, the chorus sings a pristine setting of Shakespeare’s paean to human virtue and reason: “What a piece of work is man.” But even the Bard lies, as Berger and Sheila remind us when they tease Claude awake from his dream: “Come on, Shakespeare,” they tell their doomed friend, “time to face reality.”

I don’t mean to suggest that PMT’s Hair is unremittingly somber. With an unusually large cast of strong-voiced young performers (including Elissa Goldstein, whose throbbing alto carries the slowed-down first verse of “Aquarius” with the hypnotic force of a medieval liturgical chant), the show has moments of high energy and vibrant humor as well as trippy magic. (Be warned, though: reliable sources report that the show is staged much more for the benefit of main-floor viewers than those in the cheaper balcony seats.) The pots-and-pans percussion jams are good loud fun, even if they’ve lately been surpassed in virtuosity by Stomp and its imitators; comic songs such as “Frank Mills” (sweetly sung with a slight country inflection by Misty Reams) still provoke laughs with their naive charm; and even in this permissive age there’s something breathtaking in the risk and exposure of the first act’s nude “be-in.” Such sequences remind us of how young the characters are–and how fragile is the hope that permeates their attempt to forge a more honest way of life.

Is Hair “relevant” today? Butler’s decision to mount the show here this month, as an unofficial adjunct to the Democratic National Convention, raises the question. His purposes are largely commercial (astutely so, judging from the long line I saw at the box office) and largely egotistical (the hallway into the auditorium is festooned with photos of himself, suggesting a self-image that’s half Timothy Leary, half David Merrick). But I think he also genuinely believes in Hair as a tool for teaching modern audiences, including the Dem delegates, about issues that have helped shape America in the past 30 years. The Vietnam controversy launched a political-cultural war that’s still being fought; when “1948” sneers at “1968” for acting “so damn superior” in Hair, it might as well be Bob Dole sniping at Bill Clinton’s character.

But the show’s Vietnam references are its least potent now: images of a ritual draft-card burning don’t carry the same kick they did when thousands of kids were being shipped overseas in airplanes and back home in body bags, and footage of a smirking Richard Nixon is less infuriating now that the old secret bomber is dead. The films of naked children fleeing a napalm holocaust are moving but no longer urgent; too many atrocities have come and gone since ’68, and America’s sense of mission is more ambivalent now–largely as a result of the Vietnam debacle. Hair evokes a time when Asian communists were our sworn enemies, and teenaged baby boomers were dispatched to vanquish them in vain. Today, Vietnam and China are our trading partners; meanwhile, our onetime war-protester president and our ex-pot-smoker Speaker of the House have launched a new war on America’s children in the name of welfare reform. The battles of 1996 are very different from those of 1968. But hope for a better world is a constant; so is disillusion. In their interplay, as PMT’s often moving Hair reminds us, lies the pattern of aspiration and failure that marks human life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of cast of Hair by Steven Arazmus.