BWW Review: To Love HAIR Is An 'Acquired Taste'
Manila, Philippines--It makes perfect sense that Repertory Philippines (REP) chose to end its 50th-anniversary celebrations with the staging of a big musical like "Hair." First, the said musical is also commemorating the 50th anniversary of its first staging Off-Broadway. Second, as the musical talks about the dawning of a new era or "the age of Aquarius," REP as a theater company is ushering in new milestones in its next 50 years. "Hair" also promotes a sense of community and togetherness, in line with REP's 50th-anniversary slogan "Come Home to REP."
"Hair" director Chris Millado avoids a contemporary take on a decades-old musical. Instead, he keeps the show as close as possible to the historical context of the original material. "Hair" (book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) is set in the 1960s, the time when the United States government was sending young men to fight in the Vietnam War. This era is also associated with the rise of the sexual revolution and the popularity of rock and roll.
When "Hair" was first staged in 1967, it became very controversial because of the nudity, its use of profanity, and the way it depicts teenagers taking illegal drugs. But because these things have become less controversial today, Millado has other challenges up his sleeve. For instance, how will the show sustain the interest of theatergoers when this almost sung-through musical features a tribal-rock score (by Galt MacDermot) with lyrics (also by Ragni and Rado) containing loads of political and cultural references that may become too overwhelming for the Manila audience?
To its credit, this production clearly realizes this struggle to connect with a different breed of audience. To address the situation, the members of the press in the audience were given a five-page glossary containing close to 100 words and phrases that are mentioned somewhere in the show. Still, it's nearly impossible to understand fully every single aspect of this show, due in part to the faltering microphones of some members of the cast and some of the actors' inability to enunciate and modulate a lyric on opening night.
Audiences these days do not necessarily respond positively to a show merely because of its take on a historical event. We think that the entertainment value of the whole production is a major factor in keeping audiences interested. Among the menu of popular Broadway musicals that could be staged in Manila, "Hair" may well be described as an "acquired taste." If you intend to see it, our advice is to read about the show beforehand. Don't worry, knowing some details about the plot only takes very little of the experience. What you're really paying for in seeing this production is the first-hand experience.
The good news is that the entire cast injects so much energy on stage that it somewhat keeps you from falling asleep. Even as you enter the theatre, there is an effort to set the mood of the audience. Cast members are seen dancing and chanting as if everyone is taking part in a tribal meeting. And before you know it, every cast member has gathered at the center of the stage while the overture (led by musical director Ejay Yatco) signals the start of a ceremony. With such a large cast, all dressed in stylized hippie costumes (by designer James Reyes), it's hard to keep track of each and every person's character. Luckily, one can actually survive the entire show just by remembering the names of its three leads, namely: Claude (Markki Stroem and, in some performances, Topper Fabregas), Sheila (Caisa Borromeo), and Berger (George Schulze).
Although the story eventually focuses on Claude's personal journey from being a new tribe member to his personal dilemma of choosing whether to heed the advice of his parents and join the army or stay within the tribe and participate in its anti-war protests, the show is so much more than that. We often hear songs such as "Hashish," "Sodomy," and "Colored Spade" dedicated to verbalize the book writers' views on issues like drugs, sex, and racial discrimination. There's even very little information given in the show about the tribe leader, Berger, except that we see him as a (horny and loud) character that is too set in his ways. Sheila's character is also less developed. We only know her as a student activist and one who is crazy in love with Berger.
Stroem is particularly awkward to watch, especially in the many instances where the entire cast does nothing but dance around the stage (choreography by PJ Rebullida). At first, we thought he was playing it in character since Claude is supposedly new to the tribe, yet, as the show progresses, we hardly see the camaraderie between him and his tribemates. When Claude eventually volunteers to be drafted into the army, we did not feel sorry for his decision of leaving his tribe simply because Stroem has been portraying Claude as an outcast since the beginning.
Although Borromeo is perfectly cast as Sheila and delivers a moving rendition of "Easy to Be Hard," it was Schulze who comes out with the most memorable portrayal. Last seen as Sir Robin in Upstart Production's "Spamalot," his commanding performance as Berger proves to be a great opportunity for Schulze to showcase his range as an actor, and someone with no inhibitions at that.
In retrospect, it's rather unexpected for REP to stage a musical as unconventional and as demanding as "Hair." But, as artistic director Joy Virata puts it, "every once in a while, REP jumps out-of-the-box." From what we saw on opening night, it seemed REP intends to send a strong message by producing the first professional staging of "Hair," based on the 2009 Broadway revival production, in Manila, that it remains a formidable theater company in the Philippines and it is here to stay for another 50 years or so.
"Hair" runs until December 17 at Greenbelt 1 Onstage, Makati City. For tickets, visit TicketWorld.com.ph or call (632) 891-9999.
Photos: D&E Movement Photography, Markki Stroem