Review: Will the Asolo Rep's HAIR, set during the Age of Aquarius, Succeed in the Age of Covid?

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By: Dec. 19, 2021
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Review: Will the Asolo Rep's HAIR, set during the Age of Aquarius, Succeed in the Age of Covid?

The ballsy HAIR: THE AMERICAN TRIBAL LOVE-ROCK MUSICAL was everywhere in 1968-1969. After its Broadway premiere, this energetic, cutting-edge (at the time) rock show unblinkingly tackled the counterculture, the Vietnam War, drug use, and the burgeoning sexual revolution. It permeated the pop culture universe like few Broadway shows ever had (even the more recent Hamilton-mania pales in comparison to what HAIR had wrought). Wherever you turned, there it lurked. Not just on the stage, but on the radio, where it saturated the pop charts with hits by Oliver ("Good Morning Starshine"), Three Dog Night ("Easy to Be Hard"), The Cowsills ("Hair"), and most significantly The Fifth Dimension, whose "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" would become the anthem of 1969.

If you were lucky enough to venture to a Nina Simone concert, then you might have heard her version of "Ain't Got No/I Got Life." Turn on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and there's Liza Minnelli singing "Frank Mills." Put The Supremes' Anthology record on the turntable, and there's their interpretation of "Where Do I Go?" "Let the Sunshine In" became a commercial jingle for Windex. I was a child when HAIR first opened, and I will never forget its iconic frazzled-haired psychedelic poster that peppered the landscape seemingly everywhere.

By the time the 1979 Milos Foreman film version of HAIR opened, ten years had flown by, and the youth had put away their bellbottom jeans in order to put on their polyester Saturday Night Fever disco suits. HAIR had become like old photographs in a high school yearbook...meta-cringy in its datedness. It was now a relic, a quaint ode to a bygone era.

So how does the musical--with music by Galt MacDermott; book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado--work today? Can this remnant from the Age of Aquarius succeed during the Age of Covid? Watching the Asolo Rep's taut, brilliantly realized production, the answer is a scream-from-the-mountaintops YES.

And it's thankfully anything but quaint. In some ways, it hits harder now.

Don't get me wrong: This production is not perfect. It's a breathless 90 minutes, sans Intermission. But if you're a HAIR purist, you'll miss some of the cut songs. There's no "Black Boys/White Boys," and the hypnotic "Hara Krishna" chants from "Be In" have been edited out. Other numbers have been shortened, moved around, and there's a finger-on-the-fast-forward-button feel to it all (it's not HAIR JR., if such a thing could ever exist, but it sometimes comes close). If you are unfamiliar with HAIR, it goes so fast, you might be lost early on.

The first half, though marvelously entertaining, has a waiting-around-for-things-to-get-started feel to it. We're introduced to the counterculture heroes of the show in short, jokey spurts, each character getting their big number; it's like CATS but with hippies instead of kitties. Since there's no Intermission, the ending of "Where Do I Go?", where the cast usually and famously disrobes, doesn't happen. (Don't worry; there's plenty of disrobing in the incredible "Walking in Space" sequence.)

I am no purist, so the changes worked fine for me. The only thing missing, and I guess I could blame Covid for this, is having the characters running through the audience and not being confined to the stage and its surroundings. Yes, the cast interact briefly with people in the front rows, and in the confines of the gorgeous Asolo, it certainly works fine. But we're talking HAIR, a show that should have no proscenium, that should be a sort of free-for-all, an adrenalin-fueled party, with nothing to separate the cast from the audience. The Pack, as they're now called, should be all over us, jumping over chairs and filling the aisles with flower power, but I'm sure Covid, for lack of any other way to put this, f**ked any of that up.

Still, putting all of that aside, this is one hell of a beautiful production. And the young cast brings it all home. There's not a wilted flower in the bunch.

As Berger, the more in-your-face hippie of The Pack, Kaleb Wells electrifies the room. He introduces himself by removing his jeans and handing them to an audience member. He then moons us. There's a frenetic Crispin Glover vibe to him. And he sings marvelously, his version of "Donna," never my favorite before this production, becoming a religious-themed tour de force.

As Vietnam-bound Claude, Damon J. Gillespie will break your heart. His rollicking "I Got Life," sung to life-size puppets of Middle Americans, the Silent Majority of the time, that look like they're in a George Segal sculpture, pulsates with energy. And he's equally as good in "Where Do I Go?" and the very sad "The Flesh Failures."

I've seen HAIR many times over the years, including National Broadway Tours, and Olivia Kaufmann's Sheila is perhaps the best of the lot. Her "I Believe in Love" is quite an introduction, vocally brilliant, and the iconic "Easy to Be Hard" is another standout, where she sings of such yearning, a certain loneliness in Hippy Land. After her songs, I jotted the following in my notebook in all caps: "WHAT A VOICE!"

Jonathan Fleites as Woof, with their Jimmy Page hair, steals the show. It's a sexual dynamo of a performance, at one point they even energetically hump the floor. There's a wide-eyed joyousness to their work here, and when Woof describes a deep longing for Mick Jagger, poster in hand, the audience is all theirs. They remind me of Marc Bolan of T-Rex ("Bang a Gong"), a Glam Rock Hippy before Glam Rock ever existed. And their version of "Sodomy," complete with a listing of many sexual peccadillos, is like a prayergasm, a prayer mixed with an org*sm.

Pregnant Jeanie is enamored with Claude ("Claude is my acid; Claude is my trip"), and Becca Andrews, blonde with flowers in her hair like she's a roadshow Ophelia, owns the song "Air," an environmental ditty a couple of years prior to the first Earth Day. Aubrey Matalon, as Crissy, sings the sweet "Frank Mills," like a smiling little girl lost. Although the song always feels displaced, it's still my favorite number in the show.

And then there's Hud, played spectacularly by Nora Schell. They have Aretha-quality vocals that shake the rafters in a Gospelized "Colored Spade." And they lead the Pack in a sensational (and ironic) "Electric Blues," acapella for the most part (except a harmonica later in the song). Of all of the terrific work by this Pack of terrific performers, Schell quickly became one of my favorites.

The other favorite is Charnette Batey as Dionne. The show gets off on the right foot with her amazing "Aquarius," and "Walking in Space," with her leading the way, became nothing short of goosebump-inducing.

The whole "Walking in Space" number transcended this HAIR into another dimension. It's an orgy sequence complete with a sprawling universe; imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Dionysus '69. The cast disrobes; the orgy begins. But this is not just any ordinary orgy. This is like the creation of the universe, with shooting stars in the cosmos resembling spermatozoa streaking towards their destination. The beginning of life. "How dare they end this beauty?" the Pack sings. And then we head to the strongest section in the show: Claude's war hallucination.

There's a moment when a Viet Cong soldier duets with Claude on "Where Do I Go?" and it's ingenious in both idea and execution. "Abie Baby" is performed like a Sixties Motown trio, while "Don't Put It Down" becomes a Grand Ol' Opry standard. "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" has news anchors narrating those horrifying lyrics: "Ripped open by metal explosion/Caught in barbed wire/Fireball/ Bullet shock/Bayonet/Electricity/Shrapnel/Throbbing meat..." The effect is chilling.

That powerful sequence is followed by the Shakespeare-scribed "What a Piece of Work is Man," wonderfully sung by Batey and Matalon. As they perform this, a litany of all of the world's wars, from the Trojan War on, scrolls on a backdrop. The entire sequence, from "Walking in Space" to "What a Piece of Work is Man," is some of the best theatre I've seen in a long time. I would go back to see this HAIR again and again solely due to that run of songs, which, before this production, was never actually my favorite. Now it haunts me, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

I've singled out some of the performers, but HAIR lives and dies as an ensemble piece. The entire Pack does magnificent work here, including Mckynleigh Alden Abraham, Daniel Ajak, Sophia Rose Byrd, Gordia Hayes, Abby Matsusaka, Ishita Mili, Dayna Lee Palya, Sangeetha Santhebennur, Ethan Saviet (so much fun as Margaret Mead and the song "My Conviction"), Derek Sikkema, Garrick Sigl, Matthew Skrovan, and Chad Takeda.

Anna Louizos' set design is quite wild. On the backstage wall there's a gigantic eye that changes colors throughout the show, almost an Eye of Horus staring straight at us. It brings to mind the billboard of bespectacled eyes in The Great Gatsby (which did for the Twenties what HAIR did for the Sixties--it defined the decade). There's an industrial hodgepodge to the set, but it comes alive throughout the performance with giant American flags, catwalks, and movable scaffolds. Adam Honore's lighting adds so much without being overbearing.

Joanna Lynne Staub's sound design proved quite powerful, sometimes knocking me out of my seat with unsuspecting gun shots and explosions. Dede Ayite's costumes are certainly appropriate for the time, some of The Pack looking like roadies for Country Joe and the Fish. And Michele Hart's wigs play an important role here and work quite well.

The vocals and harmonies are out of this world, thanks primarily to Music Director Christie Chiles Twillie.

The direction and choreography by Josh Rhodes is awe-inspiring, to put it mildly. There's a moment in "Going Down" where books form angel wings that is gloriously inspired. And the whole work, though edited heavily for brevity, is like a giant kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle that comes to life before our eyes. It's gorgeously conceived and directed.

HAIR at the Asolo Rep finishes its run on January 1, 2022. Go to the show early, if only to see the Pack, one by one, congregate onstage pre-show as Sixties music plays. Covid protocols are in effect, so make sure to bring your mask (required) and vaccination card (also required).

HAIR ends with "The Flesh Failures," the cast singing the iconic "Let the Sunshine In." I remember the song seeming so joyful in The Fifth Dimension's hands, but here it becomes quite sorrowful, so sad. Such a loss of life; experiencing it, I thought it could become an anthem of sorts for our current situation, for stepping out of the darkness in our Covid world. With a giant American Flag behind them, the Pack sing those words ("Let the sunshine in"), a hippy chant that at one time seemed so positive, as they exit, their voices fading into quiet. It's heartbreaking. It takes your breath away. And that's it, the rest is silence before the audience's ovation. A beautiful ending to a beautiful show.

Photo Credit: Cliff Roles