BWW Review: HAIR Lets the Sun Shine in at Ephrata
When HAIR billed as "the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, came out, America was shocked. Hippies! Drugs! Sex! Nudity! Burning draft cards! Did someone say nudity? It had a limited Off-Broadway run of six weeks, and was notable at the time as producer Joe Papp's first non-Shakespearian play... but maybe it's not so far off from Shakespeare at that, including in its nudity. Although many Americans who know of the show may connect its name with "that show with the naked people," in truth those same people know as much if not more of the songs in this show than they do of most musicals. Most musicals don't have songs that are almost completely identified with the zeitgeist of their time. James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with help from composer Galt McDermot, created a musical that encapsulated the discontent and discomfort of a generation.
It may not speak to a younger audience as it did to a generation fifty years ago, fearing being drafted into a bloody and pointless war, interested in marijuana as an aid to spiritual consciousness rather than as a social lubricant like alcohol, and for whom tuning in, turning on, and dropping out spoke volumes more than career education programs and the drive to find jobs immediately. But if younger audiences want to understand the America they're in today they need to understand the America their parents remember, and many of us remember a time very much like the 1960s of HAIR.
It's in a stunning production at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, directed by Pat Kautter, who remembers the days of draft cards and deferments and has done an excellent job of conveying the sentiments of 1960s hippie and wanna-be hippie youth to her own younger cast. "Aquarius," "Let The Sun Shine In," "Easy to be Hard" are all here, as is "Good Morning Starshine," which children of the 1970s were able to hear on Sesame Street at the time, so ingrained was the music of HAIR in popular culture. (This writer first learned the song on Sesame Street and had it on on of the show's back-in-the-day vinyl record albums.)
HAIR, in its loose plot, is the story of Claude Hooper Bukowski (no relation to the poet Charles Bukowski), a middle-class blue-collar kid whose family can't wait for them to make them proud by joining the Army during Vietnam. Claude has other ideas, like being cool, like staying alive, like relating to the universe. He's part of Berger's pack of hippie kids and twenty-somethings running around the parks of New York, meeting up, lighting up, hooking up, and avoiding the draft. Sean Deffley is a particularly charismatic Claude, trying to fake being English (from Manchester, no less), rather than being a Polish kid from outside Manhattan, and trying to decide if he's brave enough to avoid the draft. Berger is played by Bo Irwin, who lets loose a cheerfully wild, manic side that's barely tempered by waving peace signs. Maggie Shevlin plays Sheila, resident love interest and seriously brainy college student, who's possibly the biggest idealist of them all. Hud, the African-American hippie who wishes the movement would focus more on civil rights, is played by a spot-on Michael Roman, who nicely channels Hud's frustration with American racism and who illustrates the fact that the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement didn't really meet and shake hands - despite the war's disproportionate impact on African-Americans.
It's a beautiful production, with stellar lighting design by Jeff Cusano, and sharp musical direction from Zach Smith, and Kautter's own direction is strongly to the point; it's easy in many productions of this show to realize that the vignettes really are all directed to the story of Claude's life and to his relationship to the draft and the war. With vast quantities of music and non-linear vignettes, the point is sometimes obscured, but Kautter's direction and Deffley's performance keep the story in front rather than behind the music.
Whether HAIR is nostalgia or news for you, this production is worth seeing, and indulging your desire to sing along to. It's a multi-dimensional treat, consciousness-expanding even without having your bong handy. Enjoy. And realize that you're reading the only theatre program in the area disclosing the content of what's being smoked on stage - fortunately for your nose, it's not banana peels.
At the Sharadin-Bigler Theatre at Ephrata Performing Arts Center through May 13. Visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com.