Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre

Psychadelic rock musical is wildly energetic and full of spirit

By: Apr. 27, 2024
Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
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Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
The cast of HAIR at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Signature Theatre’s revival of the groovy Vietnam-era musical HAIR is wildly energetic, colorful, and full of spirit. The cast’s gorgeous voices and exuberance uplift songs that we know as the soundtrack of the times, from the opening “Aquarius” to the final “Let the Sunshine In.”

With college campuses roiling this week amid student protests, as the nation grapples with its role in conflicts half a world away, and as we continue to struggle with issues of equity, environmental degradation and political corruption, this production has extraordinary resonance. Many were disappointed when Covid forced Signature to postpone staging HAIR in summer 2020, but there is no better time than now to experience the show. It is as significant now as when HAIR began its original Broadway run in 1968.

Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
Olivia Puckett (Sheila), Jordan Dobson (Claude), and Mason Reeves (Berger).
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In the groundbreaking “American tribal love-rock musical,” we meet a group of young hippies pushing back against the conventions of the prior generation with radically different ideas on sex, drugs, rock and roll, and hair “as long as I can grow it.” They celebrate joy and freedom even as they are plunged into a chaotic world with the growing war in Vietnam.

At the center of the group are the free-spirited and impish Berger (Mason Reeves) and the uncertain, more anxious Claude (Jordan Dobson). The energy and authority of these two skilled and charismatic actors anchor the production. Reeves is magnetic, capturing the open-to-anything attitude of the time. Broadway veteran Dobson reveals a Claude who is tentative and conflicted, a pacifist who is still unsettled with the idea of burning his draft card. We feel his bewilderment, confusion, and vulnerability particularly in “Where Do I Go” and “The Flesh Failures.”

The cast as a whole is an extraordinarily talented ensemble, each a triple-threat of mighty singing, acting, and dancing chops. Their powerful voices, confident bodies, and great energy fill the stage. There is a generosity in the playwriting and songs and in Matthew Gardiner’s direction allowing each member of the cast to have moments to break out of the group and show their unique talents, their own personalities.

Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
Amanda Lee (Dionne), Jordan Dobson (Claude), and the cast of HAIR.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

That approach becomes evident from the start as the voice of Dionne (Amanda Lee) soars from the center aisle, “when the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars; then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.” The Age of Aquarius has dawned, and we know right in those first moments that we are in for something. Lee elevates every song she is a part of. Even in a quick moment as Aretha Franklin in “Abie, Baby” we sit up and take notice.

Nolan Montgomery is earnest, ditzy and hilarious as Margaret Mead singing “My Conviction.” It is a fun and memorable scene.

Songs like “Sodomy” and “Colored Spade” could be offensive in less able hands, but Noah Israel as Woof and Solomon Parker III as Hud are assured; they mine the songs for their humor and have fun with the shock value.

Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
Soloman Parker III (Hud) and the cast of HAIR.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Olivia Puckett as the NYU student and passionate anti-war protester Sheila contrasts the more strident “Ain’t Got No Grass” with the tender and affecting “Easy to be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.”

Nora Palka (Jeanie), Caroline Graham (Chrissy), Jamie Goodson (Suzannah/Mother), Keenan McCarter (Steve/Father), Greg Twomey (Paul/Hubert), Savannah Blackwell (Lorrie), Patrick Leonardo Casimir (Walter) and Alex De Bard (Emmaretta) complete the talented company. Each has a strong presence and memorable vignettes that make the show so appealing and impressive. The ensemble memorably joins together in force in numbers like “Initials,” “Hair,” and “Let the Sunshine In.”

Choreography by Ashleigh King beautifully augments the music and voices. Movement is strong and emphasizes the strength of the bodies. It utilizes lifts and turns to use vertical space as well as every nook and cranny on the small stage. The cast moves fluidly through the audience, sometimes interacting with the audience and causing a deliberate awkward discomfort.

Paige Hathaway’s scenic design is multi-leveled and, echoing another song of the era, the grid is embedded with “signs, signs, everywhere a sign” that light up or are illuminated at various times. Candles appear on the grid, or a crucifix, or projections showing comets shooting across.

Lighting design by Jason Lyons adds to the adventure and gives added momentum to the action. Especially memorable is the fluorescent green wash from panels in the stage during a trippy hallucination scene and the stark wash of the stage in the last moments as ashy snow drifts down.

Kathleen Geldard’s costuming is great fun with all of the wild patterns and flowy silhouettes of the hippie era. And there are times when the bodies are not clothed and these scenes illustrate the beauty and innocence of the tribe, mixed with a bit of shock and provocation as the youth thumb their noses at public conventions.

In a show like HAIR with an on-stage band, a large cast, and so many key lyrics to comprehend, quality sound is critical. Eric Norris’s sound design is first rate. The nine-piece band led by music director Angie Benson is tight and propulsive – they are a significant part of why the production is so successful.

In post-show remarks, HAIR’s director (Signature’s artistic director) Matthew Gardiner spoke specifically of the important work of resident intimacy consultant Chelsea Pace – a role that is seldom recognized. There is significant trust among the cast and between cast and audience as the production toys with many taboos and conventions and this is critical to the show’s success.

Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
Noah Israel (Woof) and the cast of HAIR.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

In the post-Covid theater world we are now trained for 90-minute shows with no intermission but the 2-1/2 hours of HAIR flies by. Although HAIR is not completely sung, there is minimal dialogue. The scenes are varied vignettes anchored by powerful songs. Director Matthew Gardiner has created a moving wash of powerful moments that capture the joy, confusion, anger, innocence, provocation, hope and commitment of the tribe of young people on the precipice of a new era.

The show HAIR is over 50 years old but as program notes point out, the Age of Aquarius will last for 2000 years so we are still in its infancy. We can continue to hope for a world of understanding, acceptance and peace. The themes of HAIR remain as relevant as ever half a century later.

With its talented cast, gorgeous production elements and memorable music, HAIR is an energetic and meaningful production that shouldn’t be missed.

Review: HAIR at Signature Theatre
Noah Israel (Woof), Mason Reeves (Berger) and Keenan McCarter (Steve).
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

HAIR is directed by Matthew Gardiner with music direction by Angie Benson and choreography by Ashleigh King. Scenic design is by Paige Hathaway; costume design by Kathleen Geldard; lighting design by Jason Lyons; sound design by Eric Norris; video design by Patrick W. Lord; wig design by Anne Nesmith. The Resident Intimacy Consultant and Choreographer is Chelsea Pace; Fight Choreographer is Casey Kaleba; Orchestrator is Sinai Tabak and Production Stage Manager is Kerry Epstein.

Musicians are Angie Benson, Ben Bokor, William Mulligan, Chris Walker, Kieron Irvine, Jonathan Marques, Alec Green, Jason Wilson and Manny Arciniega.

Running Time: 2:30 including one 15-minute intermission

HAIR, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and Music by Galt MacDermot, is produced by Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. The production runs through July 7. For tickets, accessible performance information, special events, attendance policies, and further information visit the company's website at the button below.

Photo Credit: Daniel Rader and Christopher Mueller


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