BWW Reviews: Return to the Age of Aquarius with HAIR at Eight O'clock Theatre

BWW Reviews: Return to the Age of Aquarius with HAIR at Eight O'clock Theatre

HAIR: THE AMERICAN TRIBAL LOVE-ROCK MUSICAL, that hummable time capsule of 1960's hippy life, is a beloved Tie-Dyed show that seemed dated as soon as the Woodstock Era gave way to the Day-Glo, Quaalude-induced 1970's. Songs like "Aquarius," "Easy to Be Hard," "Good Morning Starshine" and "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)" still shine on anyone's classic rock playlist along with the greatest hits of Moby Grape and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but the musical itself with its celebration of drugs, peace, love and happiness has aged faster than any baby boomer I know. Although its relevance to our modern world of technological marvels might as well be from a galaxy far, far away, HAIR does work as a period piece.

That said, even in today's world, any community theatre that attempts to perform it without cuts is one gutsy company. Because this is one period piece that still can pack a punch. Just a few years ago, when the national touring company passed its love beads to the Tampa area, one audience member in the performance I saw was so horrified by the sentiments of the show's flowers-in-the-hair anti-Vietnam philosophy that she angrily demanded to leave at intermission. She felt the musical was obscene, shocking and against all things Good Christians believe in. She left in a foot-stomping huff. If a musical from the Age of Aquarius can do that in the Age of Snapchat, then it must be doing something right.

Which brings me to the Eight O'clock Theatre's current production of HAIR. For the uninitiated, HAIR is a relatively plot-less musical by James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot; set in 1968, it's like "Cats" but with hippies instead of felines. This particular production, well staged by director Michael Newton-Brown, has several amazing performances and a terrific ensemble (called the Tribe) that's like a shot of adrenaline every time they appear in a number. But it is also inconsistent, with some of the songs falling flat and the show's pace occasionally lagging. Microphone glitches that plagued the end of Act 1 and some of Act 2 have been hopefully cured since opening night.

But this is a musical not to be missed, especially if you want to re-live those glory days of Be-Ins, peace signs and flower power.

Leading the way is Daniel Hayes as a particularly robust Berger, head honcho of the hippy habitat. He owns every moment onstage, even when he removes his pants by the second song (and moons us a few minutes after that). He entertainingly roams the audience with such glee, a furry beast constantly on the prowl for a good time; he is in his element, and the show is all his. It is a tour de force to behold, and Hayes's renditions of "Donna" and "Going Down" are some of the best I have ever heard.

Scott Hamilton as Claude Hooper Bukowski has a wonderful singing voice and is a powerful actor. His "I Got Life" and "Where Do I Go?" are fiercely performed, and aided by James Grenelle's marvelous choreography, his version of the title tune is a definite highpoint of the evening. However, I found his Claude too physically imposing and confident for a sensitive soul ("the purest mind on Avenue C") torn as to whether or not he should burn his draft card. But his tragic ending is incredibly moving, and Hamilton's version of "The Flesh Failures" closes the show on just the right note.

Brianna Larson as the pregnant Jeanie steals every moment she's in. With a wry smile, she brazenly tokes a joint and defends her actions as a pot-smoking mother-to-be. Her key song, the anti-pollution hymn "Air," where she dons a gas mask and squats in what looks like a green-lit, perhaps radioactive hot tub, is delightful. (I especially liked how the mask accidentally got stuck in her hair, and never missing a beat and never once losing character, Larson sings the words "save me" from the song and looks over to a hippy friend for help. It's a small moment, but a perfect one.)

Sabrina Hamilton brings down the house as Dionne with her show-opening "Aquarius," and her duet with the formidable Miguel Corteo on the Shakespeare-scribed "What a Piece of Work Is Man" is simply gorgeous. Niashia Aviles sweetly sings one of my favorite songs of the evening--the darling "Frank Mills." Megan Gillespie, Tobi Easterman, and Hayley Muley perform a rip-roaring "Black Boys" that purposely sounds like a quirky commercial for chocolates.

Jay Goldberg is exceptional in various roles throughout the show, as is Jake Howard (his portrayal of Margaret Meade singing "My Conviction" must be seen to be believed). And Alex Cheine is a hoot as the Mick Jagger worshipping Woof; I particularly liked the country twang of "Don't Put It Down" with Cheine, Goldberg and Hayes.

Grenelle's choreography is splendid throughout, especially the Dante's Inferno reenactment in "Going Down" and the cool slow motion of "Walking in Space." The only issue I had is the redundancy of having too many songs end with the Tribe members falling in unison to the ground.

HAIR is most famous for its nude scene at the end of Act 1. If your sensibilities lean more to the restrained prudish side, then there's nothing to worry about here. The scene is done quite tastefully, maybe too tastefully, with the silhouetted nude bodies emerging from slits in a gigantic parachute in near-dark lighting. It's incredibly staged, and the clever use of the parachute left the audience speechless.

But there are some problems. "Easy to Be Hard" is supposed to be that stunning, show-stopping Act 1 anthem that tingles the spine. Here, you would never know it's an iconic power ballad, up there with "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls" on the gooseflesh meter. Also, due to diction issues, some of the key lyrics in a few of the songs are hard to understand for newcomers to the show. And I miss the Hendrix-style bombastic guitar work that usually explodes before the war-torn "Three-Five-Zero-Zero." Act 1 seemed longer than it should have been; ideally, it should move like a joyous locomotive--Bam, Bam, Bam--but the timing was sometimes off.

Still, HAIR is one of the most important musicals ever--when it arrived in the 1960's, it was like a bolt of lightning, finally bringing rock to the usually stodgy world of musical theatre. And it's the Tribe that makes HAIR so good. The high-energy EOT Tribe is one of the best endearing, so talented, and so full of life that you just can't help but love them. When they venture into the audience in their hippy regalia and with smiles on their faces, you know a good time is in store.

Make sure to get to your seats early, because the cast of HAIR comes out one by one before the show begins. They give away flowers and interact with the audience. This is what separates HAIR from other musicals... the breaking of the fourth wall and the sheer joy in that theatrical bond between cast and spectators.

The multi-level set which houses the orchestra is something akin to an overgrown hippy tree fort. Speaking of the orchestra, there is only one thing better than a live orchestra...and that's a live orchestra onstage! And the onstage HAIR musicians, led by musical director Philip King, rock the house. They are tight, and Galt MacDermot's music never sounded so good. (A special "thank you" needs to go out to the people responsible for writing the program for including a full song list!)

I applaud Eight O'clock Theatre for boldly doing HAIR and doing it right with no compromises. Why can't all community theatres be this brave?

HAIR runs through July 20th and plays at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. For tickets, call (727) 587-6793. Please note: HAIR contains strong language, adult content and nudity and is recommended for mature audiences.

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