BWW Reviews: Keegan Theatre's HAIR Provides Rollicking Fun, Food for Thought, and Disturbing Images
In the Keegan Theatre's HAIR, an exuberant cast not yet born when the show opened on Broadway in 1968, celebrates life, love, rock music, and peace. These themes are as timely today. Gerome Ragni and James Rado's book, such as it is in the first "concept musical" of the modern era, and Galt MacDermot's music, also celebrate unemployment-by-choice, non-stop drug use, indiscriminate sex, and disrespect for the flag - themes that have not aged as well during the next almost half century. The show, true to its title, celebrates long hair for both sexes, but today, long hair on a man is just as likely to be associated with "Duck Dynasty" as with pacifists who refuse to touch a firearm.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the Vietnam era, and were the right age to have draft numbers, surely remember with laughter the adults growling, "Is it a boy or a girl?" - as if the scruffy beard or its absence didn't give the answer away. We also remember the anti-war rallies, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the violence outside the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, the 1970 shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, the 1968 Black Power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics that caused American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos to be expelled from the Olympics, and Nixon's 1968 "Southern Strategy." HAIR was written too early to include these iconic events of the era, and the story is poorer for it.
The Keegan Theatre's version of HAIR, with top-notch direction by husband and wife team Mark Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea, evokes the feel of the era without reproducing its exact look. Chelsey Schuller's costume design adapts modern clothing - Ugg boots, close-toed sandals, long skirts, and straight pants-legs with sewn in triangles in the seams to suggest bell-bottoms - to give modern clothes a retro look, without using actual psychedelic patterns, bright colors, or hip-huggers. Scenic designer Matthew Keenan and props designer Carol Hood Baker subtly connect the protest movements of an earlier era to those of today, by including a peace symbol on a rainbow flag protest sign.
I remember the 60's of my teenaged years as full of vibrant colors - light greens and oranges - that glowed in black light, and wild, often clashing patterns. Scenic designer Keenan and lighting designer Allen Sean Weeks instead chose to work with dim lighting and drab colors, except in a few scenes. The drabness is a clever choice by Keenan and Weeks, and by directors Mark and Susan Rhea; the decade did not, in fact, usher in the age of Aquarius but instead represented a grim era in American history when 57,000 Americans, most of them young, died in Vietnam.
The Keegan theatre's small size lends itself perfectly to a show in which the cast members sing from the aisles, talk to individuals in the audience, and hand out flyers advocating peace as part of a "be-in." Rachel Leigh Dolan's choreography and the musical performances of such iconic numbers as "Aquarius," "Hair," "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sunshine In" under music director Jake Null are brilliant and energetic. Of course, many people will want to attend to see how the Rheas approach the equally iconic nude scene that ends the first act.
The cast is wonderful - especially equity member Paul Scanlan as Claude and Josh Sticklin as Berger. They and Caroline Wolfson as Sheila form the triangle that, even among those determined to usher in an era of love, can't sort out their own feelings. Peter Finnegan steals the show as half of a small-town tourist couple determined to photograph hippies.
The Keegan production of HAIR is well worth seeing. However, along with its philosophy of peace and love, its rollicking dancing and singing, and its trip down memory lane, comes a jolt of discomfort, especially regarding its irreverence for the flag. The Keegan production, if anything, ups the ante - I found its treatment of the Stars and Stripes disturbing, especially late in the second act.
HAIR has some very dark moments, but the joyful exuberance of the cast and the celebration of love and life more than make up for them.
HAIR will run through April 20, 2014, Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. Tickets $37 and $42. The Keegan Theatre is located at 1742 Church Street, NW, Washington, DC, near the Dupont Circle Metro Station. The theatre's Web site is http://www.keegantheatre.com .
PARENTS: Children under the age of 14 are NOT admitted.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography.