Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Nancy's review of We All Fall Down
Four decades after it premiered on Broadway, Hair was revived in 2009 under the direction of Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and won the Tony Award that year for Best Musical Revival. The national tour made it to Boston two years later and it was a vibrant, robust production with a highly talented cast. However, as exhilarating as it was, I felt something lacking. I was enjoying it, but I wanted to like it more. It occurred to me that no one onstage was born when Gerome Ragni (book and lyrics), James Rado (book and lyrics), and Galt MacDermot (music) birthed Hair, let alone had any experience with the counterculture they were portraying, and it felt inauthentic.
Another decade has passed into the history books and a new generation of artists is donning the bell-bottoms, fringe vests, and love beads of the hippie tribe at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Intrepid director/choreographer Rachel Bertone's 12-player ensemble is only about half the size of the original company, but they double up on some roles and fill the stage and spill over into the aisles as if there were more of them. Only two of the dozen cast members have performed at New Rep before, adding a soupçon of freshness to the vintage musical. Though there are a handful of first-line characters who drive the story, Hair is, in principle and practice, an ensemble piece.
As a book musical, Hair is thin in the spoken dialogue department, employing almost a continuous stream of about forty songs to introduce and develop characters, as well as lay the foundation of its dramatic structure. As a unit, the tribe is a vital component of the story, but the relationship between Berger (Eddie Shields), the bad boy, and Claude (Eddie Simon), the sensitive one, is the focal point. Sheila (Marge Dunn), the resident activist, is in a love triangle with Berger and Claude, who in turn spurns the lovelorn, pregnant Jeannie (Katrina Pavao), and the rest of the flower children share peace, love, freedom and happiness with their nearest comrades. Meanwhile, the white girls crave "Black Boys," the black girls desire "White Boys," and Crissy (Kris Ivy Hayes) pines for a boy whose address she lost ("Frank Mills").
Fortunately, the score is strong and eclectic, comprising numerous well-known songs, such as "Aquarius," "Hair," "Easy to Be Hard," "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sun Shine In." Music director Dan Rodriguez (keyboard) leads a four-man orchestra (guitar, drums, percussion, bass, reeds) that captures the varied styles and sounds, and Kevin L. Alexander (sound design) provides a good mix so the vocals don't get lost. The cast boasts some terrific singers, notably Lovely Hoffman (Tribe), Yewande Odetoyinbo (Dionne), and Anthony Pires, Jr. (Hud). Both of the Eddies have voices that fit their characters, with Simon toggling between rocker and crooner, as befits each song. Dunn conveys the hurt and confusion ("Easy to Be Hard") Sheila experiences when Berger flips out on her, but hers is not the strongest voice in the crowd.
Some individual highlights include Peter Mill's turn as a woman from middle America (shout out to costume designer Marian Bertone for the spot-on outfit) looking upon the tribe through an anthropological lens (does anyone in Boston do drag as convincingly?), the topnotch dance skills of Aaron Patterson and Zoë Maloney, and Pavao's nuanced portrayal of unrequited love. Representing the people over thirty who don't come across so well in this story, Brian Barry-Pereira (Woof) and Dunn play Claude's parents, appearing and behaving for all the world like members of the Ozzie and Harriet generation who don't understand and revile those damn hippies.
The depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Bukowski is emblematic of the tone of New Rep's production which, while trying to be genuine and respectful, crosses the line into facsimile and parody. The tribe has great energy which they put into the show's movement, but their exuberance is single-minded in service to hedonism. The anti-establishment, anti-war message is glossed over, even when Claude is struggling with the existential question of whether or not to face up to his fate. Simon is the only one who seems to take it with more than a grain of salt. Shields captures Berger's shocking (for its time) flamboyance and devil-may-care attitude, and serves as an entertaining ringmaster. Conversely, the representation of political activism rests on Sheila's shoulders, a burden that Dunn struggles to hoist convincingly.
The design elements enhance the look and sound, with a mélange of lighting effects (Franklin Meissner, Jr.) and Alexander's sound effects to portray drug trips and the war. The realistic whirr of chopper blades and crisp gunshots are chilling. In fact, the scene that I experienced the most viscerally was during Claude's hallucination, when members of the tribe were felled, one by one, by bullets. However, rather than seeing them as fallen soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, I saw them as school children, or mall shoppers, or moviegoers being murdered on the mean streets of the United States in 2020.
Maybe that illuminates the blessing and the curse of mounting a production of Hair today. While it aims to transport the audience to that time and its zeitgeist, it requires an incredible suspension of disbelief and collective erasure from memory of not only the past fifty+ years, but to temporarily blank out where we are today. Oh, how I would love to be able to do that; but the incessant drumbeat of the woes of the world (climate, wars, politics, inequality, for starters) blasting us 24/7 makes it nearly impossible. Being reminded of the values espoused by the hippies and the cultural upheaval that changed our society in so many important ways is a good thing, but it left me wondering where have all the flowers gone.
Hair, runs through February 23, 2020, at New Repertory Theatre, Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown MA. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.
Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado, Music by Galt MacDermot; Director/Choreographer, Rachel Bertone; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Designer, Janie E. Howland; Costume Designer, Marian Bertone; Lighting Designer, Franklin Meissner, Jr.; Sound Designer, Kevin L. Alexander; Production Stage Manager, Brian M. Robillard; Assistant Stage Manager, Lucas Bryce Dixon; Assistant Music Director & Alternate Keyboard/Conductor, Kathleen Castellanos; Assistant Director/Assistant Choreographer, Kasia Gneiser; Wigs, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Properties, Sam Martin; Dialect Vocal Coach, Lee Nishri-Howitt; Intimacy Consultant, Angie Jepson; Dramaturg, Emily White
Cast (in alphabetical order): Marge Dunn, Kris Ivy Hayes, Lovely Hoffman, Zoë Maloney, Peter Mill, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Aaron Patterson, Katrina Pavao, Brian-Barry Pereira, Anthony Pires, Jr., Eddie Shields, Eddie Simon