In the spring of 1968, on Manhattan’s West 47th Street, a musical opened on Broadway that would become legendary in the world of theater for decades afterwards. Hair (subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical) is an autobiographical musical with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and a score by Galt MacDermot.
Hair would eventually achieve the cult status that often results from a combination of admiration and controversy. The piece became noticed immediately for its unabashedly anti-war themes, political irreverence, frank depictions of sexuality and drug use, statements on race relations in America and, most famously, its nudity.
Most of these elements lost their shock value by time the 2009 Broadway revival came around, though audiences still applauded its relevance. In 2016, at Theatre in the Park, Ira David Wood III took the most relevant elements and pushed them to the forefront. In fact, Mr. Wood’s Hair is in some ways more progressive than the original, given his additional attention to queer relationships.
The observations about race are, unfortunately, just as true now as in 1968. The connections to the current state of American society, along with an obvious nostalgia Mr. Wood holds for the 1960s, have fused to make a production that feels at once fantastic and realistic. The praise of miscegenation, disdain for colonial consumerism, and astute assessment of racial stereotypes makes TIP’s Hair not love letter to a bygone era, but rather a painful reminder of how little progress we have made.
The use of racial slurs and stereotypical colloquialisms makes the audience more than a little squeamish; but if this show does not challenge your perceptions, then it is not doing its job. This show is not didactic, but wildly satirical and must be critiqued as such. When Hud, the show’s black lead character, sings that he’s the “President of the United States of Love,” you cannot help but smile at this prophetic wink from the 1960s. The moment when the Tribe must chose whether to shoot Abraham Lincoln, played by a woman of color (in this case, Juanita Velazquez), is one of the show’s most unsettling and tense moments.
Thomas Mauney has created a veritable love den on the TIP stage. It is a grand, multi-tiered staircase (constructed by Jeffrey Nugent and his team), with multiple doorways and detailed set dressing. The set, larger than most seen at TIP, combines projections and intelligent lighting to immerse us in a psychedelic universe.
The lighting design is one of the show’s most impressive elements. It is the projected images on the back of the stage that appear unnecessary. These are the only times that the show borders on the preachy. The remainder of the show’s design elements are capable of telling the story without them and allowing the satire to speak for itself.
The costume work of Elaine Brown’s team is lavish, character-driven, and wildly colorful. Carson Smith’s hair design is often spot-on, but several wigs felt too Halloween Shop for a production this otherwise stunning, including those attached to three of the show’s male leads.
Freddie-Lee Heath’s choreography is energetic, surprising, and woven beautifully together with David Wood’s direction and Thomas Mauney’s set. The show’s weakest technical element was the sound design. The band was mixed perfectly, but the cast’s microphones were inconsistent in their use and their effectiveness.
The band may be the show’s finest element. Diane Petteway does top-notch work bringing together a fine ensemble of professional rockers: Dan Davis on drums, Robbie Link on bass, Bernie Petteway on guitar, McRae Hardy and Mark Wells on synth, and Petteway herself on piano as she belted out tunes and rocked along with the cast. You can tell this band enjoyed the material and it showed. This sextet would give any 1960s band a run for its money as far as instrumental skills go.
Hair is an ensemble piece in every sense of the word. The actors occupy the playing space for the majority of the show, giving a constant sense of energy and community. There are far too many performers to mention here, but some cannot be ignored for their work stands as the beams upon which Wood’s house is built.
Destiny Diamond gets things off to an impressive musical start with the lyric for which the show is most known: “When the moon is in the seventh house….” You likely know the rest. If you don’t, put your iPhone to good use and download the 1969 hit single “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension.
Christopher Maxwell’s Claude is engaging and passionate; Billy Hoffman’s Berger is funny and sexy; and Thomas Porter’s Woof is appropriately awkward and charming. Jarrett Bennett, giving one of the show’s best performances, is bold and sensual as Hud; Brandon Fillette’s Margaret Mead gives the audience its biggest laughs and gives the show much of its heart.
Heather Shinpaugh, perhaps channeling Ruth Buzzi, gives us a pitch-perfect nagging New York mother; Kathleen Black executes stunning, sensual balletics with adept support from Maxwell and Hoffman (whose dance abilities were known to me but whose level of technical skill was a thrilling surprise); and the contribution of Lydia D. Kinton as de facto den mother Sheila cannot be overstated — it provides the show with an honest emotional and vocal power exceeded only by the length of her hair.
The show’s ending, which involves the audience in ways that most productions do not and cannot, leaves you with a sense of joy and peace. This production is a transcendent experience and, despite a few minor technical flaws, is one of the best pieces of theater put up in the Triangle this season. It is not to be missed.
So, here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for. What about the nudity? You know, the big musical number where everyone is set to be revealed fully nude on stage? The element that has made Hair a legend and a source of unending controversy? The thing that Milos Forman’s tolerable 1979 film couldn’t even tackle?
I would love at this point to be able to give you every tiny detail about this element of the production, but that would simply be no fun. Suffice it to say, this production does “go there”; but I do not anticipate any angry letters to the management.
SECOND OPINION: July 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/hair/Event?oid=5032353; and July 5th Raleigh, NC Time Warner cable News Central NC interview with director Ira David Wood III, conducted by Caroline Blair: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2016/07/5/in-depth–hair-the-musical-.html.
Theatre in the Park presents HAIR at 7:30 p.m. July 14-16, 3 p.m. July 17, 7:30 p.m. July 22 and 23, and 3 p.m. July 24 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: SOLD OUT.
SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/calendar/event/59 and https://www.facebook.com/events/307637119578321/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/, https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh, https://twitter.com/TheatreInPark, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Park.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 14th, performance.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical (1967 Off-Broadway, 1968 Broadway, and 1968 West End musical): http://hairthemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1189 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/Show/View/4153 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).
Galt MacDermot (music): http://www.galtmacdermot.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/12086 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0531581/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galt_MacDermot (Wikipedia).
James Rado (book and lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/6628 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0705735/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Rado (Wikipedia).
Gerome Ragni (book and lyrics): https://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/5895 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0706551/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerome_Ragni (Wikipedia).
Ira David Wood III (Raleigh, NC director and TIP’s founder and artistic and executive director): http://theatreinthepark.com/about/whos-who; (TIP bio), https://www.facebook.com/iradavidwood; (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/idwiii; (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_David_Wood_III (Wikipedia).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.