Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Forty years after it first shocked the theatrical world, Hair is still quite a trip. The show that brought rock and roll to Broadway in a big way shows that it's still relevant and effective in its energetic new production at the Prince Music Theater.
This version isn't updated to the present day, but it doesn't need to be. As we watch the anti-war protests and rebellious youth who are detached from mainstream society, it might as well be 2007 and not 1967. The Prince's production ups the ante even further: not only do the actors carry protest signs and chant anti-LBJ slogans onstage, they also do it in the lobby and outside the theater as the patrons walk in. As powerfully presented by director Richard M. Parison, Jr., this isn't just some musty, patchouli-scented period piece; it's theater that confronts the audience and takes it out of its comfort zone even before the music starts.
One significant change has been made here, though: the setting has been moved from New York's East Village to Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. The cast cavorts on the square's fountains, terraces and statuary, replicated handsomely by designer Todd Edward Ivins. It's a persuasive reminder of how far-reaching the rebellions of 1967 were. Perhaps it's a little too realistic; when the cast members disrobe for the famous nude scene at the end of act one, I almost expected Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo to run out onto the square and beat them with a billy club.
(A few lines of dialogue have been changed to reflect Philadelphia place names; for example, this version's Sheila proclaims "I live in Southwark with these two magnificent beasts." The song lyrics haven't changed, though, so it's a little odd to hear references to Brooklyn and "the Waverly" in "Frank Mills.")
Galt MacDermot's insistently catchy melodies set Hair apart from its imitators from the very beginning; it was the last Broadway musical to spawn several hit singles. Those songs are a big part of what makes Hair so enjoyable, and they're well performed by a tight onstage band and a fresh-faced cast of newcomers. The actors are talented and professional, but not too slick - and that's a good thing. It's heartwarming to see a performer like Ashley Robinson who can not only sell rousing numbers like "I Got Life" and "Manchester, England" but also convey all the anguish of Claude, the would-be draft dodger at the center of the story. He's all surface bravado, but when a crisis looms, Robinson is heartbreaking as he shows that Claude is just a kid looking for a way out, someone for whom opposition to the Vietnam War is not just a political issue but a matter of life and death.
He's terrific, as is Thom Miller as Berger, the freewheeling leader of the "tribe" of hippies. Individual members of the tribe make good impressions too: standouts include Rahsaan Kerns, compelling and fierce in "Colored Spade"; Kalia Lynne, who brings a robust belt to "Dead End"; and Alyse Wojciechowski, who gives a touching sweetness to "Frank Mills." Only Kathryn M. Lyles disappoints with an underpowered, whiny version of the show's best ballad, "Easy to Be Hard."
Not everything in Hair has aged gracefully. The lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado vary greatly in quality, to say the least; the subtly satiric lyrics of songs like "Air" and "Don't Put It Down" come across much better than more heavy-handed numbers like "Abie Baby" and hippy-dippy relics like "Be-In/Hare Krishna." Ragni and Rado's book is so wispy it's practically non-existent. Also, with forty more years of history behind us, the show's relentless championing of illegal drugs ("Do whatever you want to do," one character says, "just so long as you don't hurt anybody") seems more sad than daring. Claude proclaims that this is "the age where it's more fun than ever to be stoned," while Berger is trying to score a ticket to see Janis Joplin. (Get it while you can, Berger - she'll be a drug casualty in just three years.)
Still, the open-faced earnestness of the cast goes a long way in making even the more questionable parts of the show palatable. Parison's direction brings out the best in his actors, who approach their characters with a complete lack of affectation. A line like "I am lost in the unfathomable infinities of your mystical third eye" would be laughable under most conditions these days, but actress Lindsey Gordon gets away with it because of the sincerity in her delivery.
A few quibbles: A strobe lighting effect during the act two acid-trip number "Walking in Space" goes on far too long; I found it (literally) painful to watch. The show also had some microphone problems on opening night, which seems to be a frequent issue at the Prince.
Still, this is a vibrant production of an important show. The Prince's production makes it clear that, while times and styles have changed, Hair, in the right hands, can still have a lot to say to a modern audience.
Hair runs through Sunday, June 17, 2007. Ticket prices range from $35 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical