Back when Karl Marx was digging the scene, it may have been true that history repeated itself as tragedy and then as farce. But these days, we’re more likely to revisit it as a Heineken commercial or a fashion layout in The New York Times' T Magazine. Which is why I had reservations about the Skylight Theater’s production of Hair, the 1967 musical that brings back the era in all its tie-dyed, joint-rolling glory. Like most people, I knew some of the songs from the pop-chart crossovers by the Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night, and, yes, The Cowsills. But despite the success of the recent Broadway revival, I feared this Hair would be an exercise in style, a mere (acid) trip down memory lane—"Happy Days" with peace signs and fringe.
How wrong I was. Ray Jivoff and Viswa Subbaraman’s superb production, which opened this weekend, somehow cuts through the clichés and caricatures of the era and captures something essential about that time and about the American experience itself. The result is electrifying, thought provoking and profoundly moving.
It does this by being both “of” the era (it premiered in 1967, after all), and looking back on it with more knowing eyes. James Rado and Gerome Ragni created Hair because they wanted to explore the meaning of the American era they lived in. So even if the play hits all the familiar touchstones of that time—the protests and sexual experimentation, the antagonism toward the values of the "older" generation—it does so through characters that are fully immersed in--and energized by--the Shock of the New that rolled through America in the late '60s.
Jivoff’s large, almost exclusively local cast, captures the mood and commitment without putting “quotation marks” around the attitudes. The "Be-in" starts long before the band starts playing: the cast mills about the theater, talking to audience members as they take their seats, passing out peace-sign necklaces, starting impromptu anti-war chants, and singing along to the period soundtrack that sets the mood. By the time the dynamic voice of Raven Dockery eases in to the mystical first lines of "Aquarius," you're firmly planted in 1967 Tompkins Square Park, New York City’s counterculture ground zero. And when the ensemble launches powerfully into the full-throated chorus, announcing the “dawning” of the age (just one of the many times you feel Subbaraman’s expert musical sense at work), you know that this is a force to be reckoned with.
That force is a product of some pitch-perfect individual performances: Alex Mace as the smarmy and sexualized ringleader, Berger; Amber Smith as the future earth mother, Jeanie; Sherrick Robinson as the playful cutup Hud; and Ryan Cappleman as the Mick Jagger-worshipping Woof. Alison Mary Forbes lends her graceful musical sense to several songs, even imbuing the slightly ridiculous “Good Morning, Starshine” with palpable warmth and heart. And as Claude, Doug Clemons takes an unassuming star turn, giving the story’s central figure an American Everyman vibe that pays off in Hair’s potent closing moments.
But true to the spirit of its time, this isn’t a show of stars. Jivoff and his cast have created a “tribe” (as the ensemble is called) in the truest sense of the word. In a show where the stage is almost always bustling with performers, it’s a joy to follow distinctive personalities as they emerge as the evening goes on. And it’s all the more thrilling when these eclectic characters come together in Jeremy McQueen’s loose but highly charged choreography.
It's that uneasy tension between the individual and the collective that gives this Hair its powerful magic, makes it a great American musical rather than an exercise in nostalgia. We may roll our eyes at the assorted fashions and frenzies of those heady years, but we all know the feeling of desperate urgency--the need for light to pierce the darkness--that washes over the stage in the play's final song.
Photos by Mark Frohna