by Thomas Burns Scully, OnStage Critic ‘Hair’: the groundbreaking, taboo-shattering, famously full-frontal, progressive rock musical from the tail-end of swinging, hippy sixties. Doubtless you’ve heard of it, possibly even seen it produced by a drama group with a somewhat daring artistic director in charge. In it’s day it was controversial and notorious, nowadays we’ve come to accept it as part of the Broadway furniture. That’s probably the most interesting thing about ‘Hair’ in the stark light of the twenty-first century, it is so fiercely ‘of-its-time’ that it’s hard to believe it was not written to be a nostalgia property. Which, indeed, is what it has become. All the right-on, free-loving, hippy-shaking, pot-smoking of the show, seems to nail every single stereotype of the sixties, making the modern experience of ‘Hair’ a romp through the greatest hits of the hippy movement. That is certainly how I felt at the Secret Theatre’s revival production last night.
For the uninitiated, the Secret Theatre is a medium sized black-box theatre venue just off the Court Square subway stop in Long Island City. It’s a fun space, and good work is generally done there. For this production of ‘Hair’, director Richard Mazda has managed to assemble a talented, energetic cast to fill out the tribe. The principals are all solid performers, and the entire group play together very nicely. Indeed, the numbers where the whole tribe are singing and dancing together are when the show is at its peak of enjoyableness. Mary Lauren’s choreography is neat and effective, and whatever Anthony Wright is doing as dance captain is clearly working. The singing is excellent, which the cast and musical director Anthony Hollock deserves great credit for (He was also costume director, for which he also deserves a pat on the back). That said, music is where this production of ‘Hair’ stumbles on several occasions.
On opening night, last night, there was a definite volume problem. The soloists aren’t mic’d, and the band is clearly too loud for most of them on their own, rendering their singing inaudible in several songs. When the whole cast sings, the balance and clarity is great, but whenever someone is singing on their own there is a definite problem. This wasn’t the only technical issue with the show. The bassist’s amplifier buzzed noticeably throughout, and there were sparks of static on several occasions from various bits of tech. Add to that a standing mic used for certain scenes that failed completely in the first act, and its safe to say that opening night had its kinks. It’s a credit to the cast that they were able to cope with these problems and keep the show as engaging as it was. I’ve heard it on authority that the crew will have the issues resolved by tonight.
Problems aside, I found ‘Hair’ to be very enjoyable for what it was. Torrey Wigfield was very good as the gawky and awkward Claude. Chloe Kostman was endearing as the pregnant Jennie. Probably my favorite moment was Carmen Napier singing “Good Morning Starshine”; a charming highlight, and free of the technical issues that marred other numbers. Other than that it’s difficult to single out individuals from the show, given it’s ensemble nature. As I said earlier, this production of ‘Hair’ worked best when the whole tribe were involved, and when they leapt in to the audience at the end, it was hard to resist their invitations to get up and dance. Though I somehow managed. Nods of approval also go out John Lavigne, who’s obviously handmade sets are highly appropriate for the subject matter, and wig-mistress Billie Aken-Tyers (also a Tribe Member) who kept me guessing which hair was real.
Other than that, there isn’t much more to say about ‘Hair’ at the Secret Theatre. It’s a fun revival of a highly enjoyable show. There isn’t really that much more to it. It’s tempting to draw parallels between the idealistic protest movement of the sixties depicted in ‘Hair’ and the protests that seem to be happening every other weekend in the twenty-first century (as they do in the show’s program), but, for my part, I can’t see it. Watching the show last night, as much as I was having fun, I couldn’t help being struck by how un-relevant the content seems nowadays. Yes, the play discusses race, sexuality, drug-use and war, but it does so in a way that was meant to confront the conservative middle-class of the nineteen-sixties. Middle-class sensibilities, particularly in New York city, have moved on a pace. It’s not exactly a shock to hear black members of The Tribe use the n-word on stage, when ‘Django Unchained’ is available on Netflix. In the decade of HBO, the show’s infamous nudity isn’t that big a deal any more. Even the tribe protesting the draft feels very dated, given that the draft has not been used in forty-two years. And why would anyone be shocked at depictions of weed being smoked on stage, when the drug is rapidly being legalized? The sixties were vital as a step along the road, the protest movement was an intrinsic part of our cultural evolution, but we have moved on. If anything, the hippy movement won, because the evils of war, racism and sexual repression depicted in ‘Hair’ have had to take on far more devious forms in order to persist. The insidiousness of military advertising and recruitment; Presidential Proclamation 4771; white privilege; the strangely persistent societal expectations of women, and the other things that Jon Stewart talks about are much harder entities to fight than the more obvious ones depicted in ‘Hair’.
But this is not the spot to get on a political soapbox, it’s the time to tell you to go and see ‘Hair’ at the Secret Theatre. It’s fun, it’s a nostalgia trip, it’s the Summer of Love encapsulated in two and half hours. It’s a time capsule of what a group of artists thought was important about their in time, in their time. It’s the same show you’ve always heard and been curious about with all the fun stuff left in, and the cast are great. The show has a great atmosphere and, so long as the technical kinks get worked out, there’s little to distract you from talented people doing what they do best. Book now, tickets are selling fast.
Secret Theatre: http://www.secrettheatre.com/