Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Robert's review of The Music Man
The critic Walter Kerr once described a theatrical "be-in" in the late 1960s in which a lovely young lady from the world of the stage came and sat in his lap during the show, urging him to "free himself," which in St. Louis might be badly misunderstood by the Vice Squad. New Line Theatre's young (ish) actors do nearly the same thing, though the very talented Todd Micali did not actually get into my lap (thanks to the very large, very grave memoir by Helen Mirren resting on my loins). But I wouldn't have put it past him, as he is the most perfectly exuberant member of the cast. With his intensity in the ensemble numbers, he occasionally makes the rest of the chorus look like they really are on dope.
The other Todd in the show, Todd Schaefer, is superb as always as leading man Claude, the young fellow struggling with a newly delivered draft card. These flammable little pieces of paper, children, would send you off to a proxy war in far-away Viet Nam, and quite possibly on to many years of post-traumatic stress syndrome after that, not to mention drug and alcohol addiction, all for a cause that has never been adequately explained.
But how does Mr. Miller raise this 1968 paean to peace, love and rock 'n roll to the standards of the great icons of Broadway? With outstanding ensemble singing (of songs now cherished by baby boomers), though some of the soloists are a little shaky. This Hair also charms with big dance numbers that are often as fascinating as anything by Busby Berkeley. Further, though I usually don't weigh in on set painting, actor/designer Todd Schaefer has come up with one of the most beautiful sets anybody in town has laid down in the last few years: with a field of floating day-glo mushrooms sprinkled across the floor down-right, and a myriad of paisley shapes spreading across the stage to down-left.
Much smoke is blown, and much adolescent naughtiness is waved like a banner. But just to see the glowing idealism on the faces of fine actors like Khnemu Menu-Ra, Aaron Lawson and others is somehow astonishing in this age of bitter disappointment and gloom, and to hear the folksy and dramatic songs of Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot (usually) raised so beautifully is a great pleasure. John Sparger is Berger, the handsome, long-haired ringleader of the grand love-in, and his sunny disposition is as bright and harmless as Curly in Oklahoma! itself.
Robin Michelle Berger is terrifically good as Jeanie, the pregnant earth mother of the piece, though all those hand-rolled clove cigarettes seemed to have gotten the better of her voice on opening night. Special mention also goes to Zachary Allen Farmer as the delightful Tourist Lady.
One of my first memories of living in Saint Louis, as a young teenager, was watching a story on the evening news about a big protest that shut down a touring production of Hair because of the famous nude tableau right before intermission. But today, the sight of the entire cast lined up naked like a bunch of cattle is merely embarrassing. I'm sure this "reveal" is completely true to the opening night of the show, being part of a New Line production, and that it has shocked many a theatergoer in the past. And yet after all these years it somehow becomes the only moment (of an otherwise passionate, delightful play) that seems rather clinical and calculated. Otherwise, for the generation of psychedelic awakening and sexual revolution, this lock of Hair is a sentimental touchstone and a heart-warming bit of modern Americana.
Hair continues through October 18, 2008 at the new South Campus theatre of Washington University, in the former CBC High building, across from the Esquire theater on Clayton Rd. Parking is adjacent to the west entrance. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com or call Metrotix at (314) 534-1111.
"The Osage Tribe"
The Artistic Staff
The New Line Band
Photo by Jill Ritter