Review: American Tribal Rock Musical HAIR is Still Relevant After 50 Years
HAIR was written more than 50 years ago by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot and broke new ground in musical theatre by defining the genre of "rock musical" as well as using a racially integrated cast and inviting the audience onstage to join in the "Be-In" finale. But at the time it opened off Broadway at the end of 1967, it seemed unlikely that HAIR would be relevant five decades later.
A product of the hippie counter-culture, sexual revolution, and Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s, several of its songs became anthems of the anti-war movement, while its profanity, depiction of the use of illegal drugs, treatment of open sexuality, irreverence for the American flag, and full-frontal nude scene caused much comment and controversy at the time. Yet today it seems what was shocking has become so common place that even a few children were in the audience at the performance I attended.
Those who saw the original production certainly can see how the rock musical's topics are still relevant, especially politically, with the conflicts between conservatives and progressives still in the news daily, with the 60s fashion still trendsetting now. The songs remain infectiously energetic and the coming-of-age story has lost none of its sparkle and relevance, ready to bring its message of peace and love to a new generation.
Director Rovin Jay said he drew inspiration for the show from Harry Belafonte's words when he introduced the original Broadway cast of HAIR at the 1969 Tony Awards. Contrasting the upcoming walk on the moon with the rock musical, Belafonte said "Scientists deal in logic and I have the faith that they will get some of us to the Moon. But there is more than logic in the theatre. The theatre deals with passion and emotion. We live in emotional times. Artists are emotional people. So, listen to them, friends."
The "summer of love" experience begins when you first walk up the Long Beach Playhouse stairs and cast members greet you as if they met you elsewhere nearby and invited to join them to celebrate life together. It was fun to jump into the story that way, listening to them talking together about their own lives as a way for us to know them before the stage show even began.
Musical director Stephen Olear, who dressed for the occasion as did the entire band, rocked the house from start to finish as there is hardly a moment during which music is not performed. Choreographer Sonya L. Randall certainly worked closely with the dancers to bring forth the joy and optimism of the show's music which will not doubt live forever in the hearts of anyone who has performed or seen HAIR anywhere at any time.
There are so many great songs to talk about that ring true today in subject matter, especially with the desire to be accepted and loved for being exactly who you are. However, unfortunately there is not a song list in the program, so I cannot correctly credit the cast members who performed them. But I can talk about a few standout performers whose energy and enthusiasm highlighted the entire performance.
High school dropout Berger is embodied heart and soul by the charismatic Jacob Rachuy Stephenson, who boldly flaunts his half-naked body and full, glorious head of hair throughout the show. He is a joy to watch and drool over, just as all the women (and several of the men) in the show do so well. Gregory Bystritski plays Claude as the simple everyday guy that he is from a middle-class Polish family who can't seem to find his way in life and winds up getting drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. The anger his friends feel about his absence at a protest rally, and his own shock at the reality of war, fuel the heartfelt inspiration for all to stand up and chant "Make Love Not War" and other 60s appropriate protest signs.
Costumer Christina Bayer made it easy to identify Jules Ronquillo as Woof, as she included a stuffed animal around his waist to accentuate his animalistic nature. Big and beautiful Lorne as Hud and David Ponce as Margaret Mead, each commanded the stage with their presence. Among the standout women in the cast are Shannon Wynne as the very pregnant Jeanie, Latonya Kitchen as Dionne, Celia Ruskin as Chrissy, and belter extraordinaire Justyn High as Sheila.
Always a HAIR favorite of mine is the racially-charged "White Boys" and "Black Boys" song combination during which the women of both praise the glorious attributes of the men of the other. All of the women named above really know how to sell a song with the best of them, and it was a joy watching them put the men through their paces during this celebration of love and sex. And of course, the show's most popular songs "Aquarius," "Manchester England," "I Believe in Love" and "Easy to be Hard" both performed to perfection by Justyn High, "Good Morning Starshine," and the show's title song, will continue to be part of our musical lexicon.
Yes, there is full frontal nudity, men in drag, drug use, free sexuality, spiritual exploration and religious questioning. But I can only hope those seeing this production will walk out of the theater singing the songs and realizing it is up to us to make the world the type of place it ought to be for all people. Equal and free to be exactly who we are.
Get ready to experience the dawning of the age of Aquarius with HAIR through November 23, 2019 on Friday/Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, in the upstairs Studio Theatre at the Long Beach Playhouse, located at 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, CA, 90804. Be advised this theater is not handicap-accessible.
Ticket prices: Friday: Adults are $20, Seniors $18, and Students $14. Saturday and Sunday: Adults are $24, Seniors $21, and Students $14. Tickets are available at www.lbplayhouse.org, or by calling 562-494-1014, option 1. The box office is open Wednesday-Saturday from 3:00-8:00 pm and Sundays from 1:00-2:00 pm on scheduled matinees.
Photo credit: Michael Hardy Photography