A time of racial strife, a seemingly unending and unpopular war, a contentious political election, a general feeling of doom. Sound familiar? We could say those words described America last week or last month or 10 years ago. Those words also described an equally confused and divided America back in 1967, when Hair debuted Off-Broadway. Theatre in the Park founder and artistic and executive director Ira David Wood III probably considered those parallels when he decided to add Hair to the lineup for TIP’s 2016 season, but who would have believed how closely the parallels would run once the play was in production? Wood’s version of the rock classic musical proved that it’s just as effective today as it was when it first shocked audiences in the late 1960s. It played to a full house this past Sunday afternoon.
Ironically, theater audiences haven’t changed much since this show first hit the floor boards. A quick glance around Theatre in the Park’s lobby proves that this theater, like many others, is supported by the “older generation.” A second piece of irony is that most of the theatergoers talked about the first time they had seen (or performed in) the play. The third, and final, piece of irony was, the actors who portrayed the characters in this production of Hair were, for the most part, young enough to be the grandchildren of the majority of the audience members. Hair might have skipped a generation, but those actors/singers/dancers who rocked the house couldn’t help but understand what their counterparts in their grandparents’ generation fought for and truly cared about.
There’s much to be complimented about the performance that this reporter is reviewing, and let it be said here that this review may include spoilers. If you’re a Hair virgin, stop reading here.
The play begins with background filter of news clips as the actors float to the stage from the back of the audience. Clothed in sheets that act as canvases for a roving star light, the Tribe is led by activist Sheila (Lydia D. Kinton), free spirit Berger (Billy Hoffman), and undeclared leader Claude (Christopher Maxwell). The Tribe does a rousing rendition of “Good Morning Starshine,” one of many songs that crossed over onto the top of the music charts as a result of this musical.
Kinton’s voice is a bit tentative for half a dozen notes, then she slips into her groove and is a delight for the rest of the evening’s performance. Hoffman is a better actor than he is a singer, and he has a good sense of comedic timing. But Maxwell is the whole package — nice voice, good acting, and that all-elusive chemistry.
With that ethereal introduction (a song about astrology and mysticism), the play gets into the nitty-gritty topics that made the Sixties what they were. Themes of sexuality, nudity, and freedom start in the first few moments when Berger decides to strip to a loin cloth. The freedom he experiences when examining his own sexuality (as well as that of several other members of the tribe) gave voice to the terms “sexual freedom” and “free love,” underscoring what the hippie movement believed to be personal and human rights, not the dirty sins the previous generation believed them to be.
The war in Vietnam plays a central role to the play. One of the central characters (Claude) is drafted, trained in the Army, sent overseas, and comes back in a pine box; and the Tribe as a whole (representing the American tribe) is affected by the political ramifications of the war and how it played out in that generation’s version of “social media.” Throughout the play there are times when black-and-white photos slide by on the screen behind the show band. Some are photos made iconic with the passage of time. Some underline the historical significance of certain protests or events. Some still shock with the sheer inhumanity of the war during its bloodiest moments.
It was a time when American people were ashamed of what was going on around them. It was a time of fear and a time of great rebellion. It was a time when college students and other young adults questioned their world and demanded change.
Again, not so different from today.
Though the themes in the play are intense and often dark, the music includes so many recognizable songs that many could sing (or at least hum along) the whole soundtrack. Claude/Maxwell’s version of “Manchester” gives a nod to the British pop music of the generation.
The play’s title song, performed by Claude, Berger, and the Tribe was a major hit for the pop group the Cowsills in 1969. And “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” sung by Dionne (Destiny Diamond), a jazzy singer who put her own take on the standard. That was a song that became a Billboard charts hit for the popular R&B group the 5th Dimension. Because so many of the songs are recognizable, it is difficult for others to perform the songs as they were originally performed, while giving them a personal twist. Diamond did a great job with “Aquarius,” and Kinton’s solos were some of the best of the evening.
This version of Hair has many similarities with those early performances of the show. The actors are enthusiastic, the chemistry between them is good, and most of them can sing and dance. The Tribe is loose, often disjointed, and sometimes out-of-sync on the dance floor; but it feels natural and normal for this storyline.
There are a few aspects of the show that cause those who have seen it before to wonder why some scenes were not edited a bit more carefully. For example, John Lennon’s photograph is included in a montage of leaders who were slain on or around the time the play was released (1967-69), but the singer wasn’t killed until 1980. Since the cast made a number of comments about the play being set in 1968 as they lazed on stage prior to the beginning of the play, the introduction included a warning about cell phones since “they didn’t have them in 1968” and there are references throughout the play to the date, all of the photos and media references should stay within those parameters.
One mild point of criticism: some of the actors’ wigs were barely a step above those Halloween wigs that kids get with their costumes. It would be wise to invest in some wigs that actually look like hair. Seeing as, well, the play’s title ….
At the end of the show when the characters are still mourning Claude’s death and trying to figure out their own place in the conflict that is the United States, they come through the audience and take individuals to the stage to “Let the Sunshine In.” It was obvious from the tie-dye shirts and flowing skirts of some of the audience members that they were no stranger to that particular song, but the audience participants did not stay onstage for an extended period of time after the actors left and the music started playing as it did during the show’s early days when the last scene could go on for another hour after the end of the show. But, then again, that was the Sixties.
Maybe that’s the one difference between then and now.
Theatre in the Park’s performances of Hair will continue through July 24th. The theater is small and the show is good, thus there’s a good chance this one will continue to sell out. (Editor’s Note: This show is now officially sold out.)
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. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the July 12th Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/07/theatre-in-the-parks-hair-lets-all-the-sunshine-in/.)
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).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.