Times theater reviewer C.B. Goldsmith checked out the touring version of the '60s Broadway musical "Hair" on Tuesday at the Plaza Theatre. Trippy. Here's what he had to say.
By C.B. Goldsmith
When “Hair” was first produced in the 1960s, America was different. The comfortable 1950s had been replaced by a cultural revolution that still resonates today. “Hair” was one of those seminal events that, like the film “Easy Rider,” the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and the music of Bob Dylan et al changed almost everything.
“Hair” not only captured this upheaval, but to the enemies of change, “Hair” was vilified as profoundly dangerous to our youth and culture. Now, 45 years later, it remains a touchstone of those radical days — and is surprisingly quaint by today's standards.
The non-Equity national touring company of “Hair” that came to the Plaza Theatre Tuesday, based on the Tony Award-winning 2009 revival, was powerful from curtain’s rise. You might expect (as I did) that a non-Equity production might feature a modicum of talent, but the almost 40-member cast was beyond able. From the smallest of parts sprang the lushest of voices.
“Hair” follows a "tribe" of young people amidst the splintering of America over the Vietnam war, the most central among several political and social issues of the day. The protagonist is Claude, a Christ-like kid from Queens who has just been drafted and is torn between burning his draft-card in protest, fleeing to Canada to avoid the war or reporting as ordered to head to that war that divided a nation. Claude’s conflict is juxtaposed with his tribe of hippies shredding themselves amidst the emergence of the counter-culture and its poly-sexuality, drugs and rock music.
Noah Plomgren portrayed Claude with a fine mixture of bewilderment and genuine strength of character. His voice was rich and strong, but within his acting lay the humanity that delivers “Hair” as a present and vital statement some four decades after it was written.
Plomgren was supported beautifully by a last minute fill-in for the other male lead of Berger. Mike Longo emerged from the tribal chorus to deliver a powerfully feral interpretation of a guy whose freak flag (and other parts) fly unfettered. Longo reveled in his freedom, and his spirit contributed mightily to the mayhem that is required by this play.
The other significant male roles were delivered flawlessly by the two most vocally gifted men — Carl James as Hud and Dallas native Jason Moody as Woof. James delivered his every song impressively, but it was his magnetic presence that held together the show’s many ensemble songs and dances as he seemed to be everywhere at once. Moody’s voice was equally gifted, though its lyrical sweetness gave his solo in the song “Sodomy” a complexity I’d not heard in other productions of “Hair.”
Musical director and conductor Lilli Wosk and her band rocked. Its placement onstage, not in the pit, complimented H.P. Viveros' scenic design and the vibrant costumes of Michael McDonald. This combination gave the production a richness one might not expect from a tour.
There were problems. The play began with a damaged scrim curtain that looked second-rate. Also, feedback in altered songs on five occasions. And a curtain failed to close Act One. These failures were unacceptable, whether they were the fault of the tour's production or the host theater.
On the plus side, the women of “Hair” were a revelation. Mary Kate Morrissey, as Sheila, has a voice that seemed to stop time. Her every song elevated this listener and the show itself. Her version of “Easy to Be Hard” was pure, magnificent theater. Danyel Fulton, as Dionne, had an effortless range that shook, shimmied and shattered in solos like “Aquarius” and ensemble songs like “Aint Got No” and “Let the Sunshine In.”
In every song there were female voices, and dancers, who built foundations for the male leads and therein lay the surprise of a 45-year-old “Hair.” For a musical whose theme is racial and sexual freedom, "Hair" in 2013 is surprisingly sexist. The hippie boys are the plumed peacocks around whom all focus. Unfortunately, the women seem like perpetual side-cars. I doubt that the show’s talented creators, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, had any intent to marginalize the women into accessorized afterthoughts, but four decades later this emerges.
Earlier I used the term “quaint” and this applies to several parts of “Hair” even when as strong presented as it was by this company. The sex, drugs and even the nude scene that famously closes the first act are tame in comparison to all we have seen and learned these days. The world did change. Polysexuality, pot and rock were battles that were won back then, and this musical is that nostalgic soundtrack of that.
That said, the real surprise is that the core message of “Hair” is as powerful today as it must have been back in the '60s. Its anti-war theme still resounds, suggesting that war and not culture is the true enemy of youth.