The hippie-rock musical “Hair” by Gerome Ragni and James Rado is one of the most successful and widely performed musicals ever. Set in the emerging hippie street culture of the 1960’s, the central storyline concerns a young man and his decision of what to do about his draft notice, an induction into the battles of the divisive and heartbreaking war in Viet Nam. More than that, however, this show is about the vitality, originality, integrity and passion of young people trying to find their place in the world, and also trying to reject those elements of that world which are contrary to their own hopes and passions. That’s really what has made this show endure. Although we are a very long way from that actual time in history, nothing really separates young people of today from those young people in terms of their commitment to creating a world where they can live the kind of lives that they believe they deserve for themselves. And nothing is different for young people in our current world in terms of the disillusionment, sorrow and disappointment that so often accompanies that quest.
This Bainbridge Performing Arts production, directed by Teresa Thuman, has assembled a marvelous cast of talented young people who manage to build their very own world right before our eyes. The “tribe” brings enormous passion and personal identity to the culture they create. I don’t have any reservations about the vitality and urgency of that “tribe” and the way in which they celebrate that life in front of us. I do have some hesitations about the historical world in which that culture is invented, especially in the first act, and about a certain degree of spontaneity and invention that needs to be in every song. By the end of the show, however, I totally believed the conviction and emotional integrity of every word the “tribe” gave voice to. Ultimately, I was quite satisfied that this generation (probably two generations removed from the original) made this show belong to them, made it about telling their story, made it about insisting that we believe in their hearts and their passions.
Many of the hippie conceits (drugs, nudity, anti-establishmentarianism, sexual exploration, denying everything about the dull, normal “establishment” order) were quite shocking when this show originally came out, and are much more a part of our everyday world now. My biggest problem was that in the first act I didn’t have a strong enough sense of that conventional, unacceptable world surrounding this group of young people who were vociferously rejecting it. In the opening number, “The Age of Aquarius” the lead singer throws off her costume and performs the entire number in the nude. That was actually perfect, not because it was shocking, but because it was a declaration that we were about to meet all of these characters in their unadorned reality, and that we needed to be ready to see them without any social cover-up, as they were about to see each other.
In the first act, most of the songs are spontaneous inventions, really just explorations and statements of what these people discover about the world they live in. Because there wasn’t a strong enough sense of what that world was, it too often felt like just a sequence of performances of some often silly and inconsequential songs, and not markers, discoveries from a journey through a country that none of them really knew. Our primary guide, Berger (Ted Dowling) is supposed to be the hippest, most far-out member of the tribe. For me, this character was just too one-dimensional, a zoned-out druggie without a whole lot of character or charisma. That made his revelations later of the flaws in his true character much less dramatic. As Claude, the insanely inventive young man who will have to face both his real life and the terrible reality of war, I thought Jesse Smith was much more successful. Especially in the second act, when everything is about him and everything the others do is about dealing with what Claude does, I really was convinced of the complexity and contradiction of the world in which this was all taking place. Smith also made me feel that the conflict within his own heart was authentic and profound. In the second act, the world of the tribe really felt like part of the much larger, much more lethal world around them. That was a major element in the power of the finale and the ultimate satisfaction of the production.
As I said, the entire tribe was fully committed and there were many outstanding performances. In particular, I thought Olivia Lee as Ronny, Denny Le as Woof, Michelle Lorenze Odell as Dionne and Margaret Mead, Brace Evans as Hud and Alison Monda as Sheila were particularly outstanding. Most importantly, though, the entire ensemble created not just a cast, but a community in which every player was vitally important. I cannot over-emphasize the power of the finale, not just because it summarized the entire journey, but because it was truly one voice speaking from the very depths of its soul.
The physical production was excellent, with Scenic Design by Alex King, Costumes by Margaret Toomey, and well-balanced Sound design by Matt Hadlock. The Music Direction by Josh Anderson was first-rate, as was the dynamic and youthful choreography by Noah Duffy.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen productions of “Hair”. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but most of the time it does, because in the course of building the production all of the actors discover how much they have in common, how eternal the process is of finding your own place in an often dangerous and hostile world, and how much music can ease and energize your journey. Bainbridge Performing Arts has a great deal to be proud of with this production and I would recommend it to anyone interested, not so much in returning to the 1960’s, but in returning to the joys and conflicts and limitless energy of youth itself.