Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Music by Galt McDermot. Directed by PJ Paparelli with additional direction by J.R. Sullivan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
A funny thing happened to the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical somewhere along the line of its nearly five decades in existence: It got safe.
Consider this: In 1968, when the drug-endorsing, integration-embracing, homosexual-friendly, anti-war hippiepalooza Hair finally made it to Broadway after opening Joe Papp’s Public Theater and later retooling for a run at a discotheque, The New York Times' critic Clive Barnes approvingly called it “the frankest show in town” in the same review in which he described receiving letters from those who saw it in previews and wrote “asking me to warn readers.”
And yet my first impression of the show just a couple of decades later, when the first President Bush was in office and I was in junior high, came from an episode of a family sitcom. A proposed high-school production of Hair propelled the plot for 22 minutes of gentle laughs on ABC's Head of the Class; the show was safe enough to be a fake controversy on broadcast TV.
Even the director Diane Paulus’s more recent Broadway revival of Hair, which reminded audiences and critics alike (myself included) of how fresh and invigorating this fantasy ’60s world of peace, love and understanding could still feel, came with a well-scrubbed shine. The cast members might come out into the theater and, if you had an aisle seat, possibly caress your head, but you never doubted they’d washed their hands before doing so.
Praise be, then, “Oh Great God of Power,” for American Theater Company’s doggedly scruffy new staging of Hair. ATC’s artistic director, PJ Paparelli, enlisted the assistance of co-creator James Rado to revise the now well-known version of the musical, returning to the script some material that was cut between the 1967 Public run and the show’s heavily revamped Broadway bow the following year.
The theater provides neither a concordance nor even a concrete set list, so perhaps only the most devoted fan could catalog every change. But some known cut numbers find their way back in, such as “Exanaplanetooch,” in which sweet space cadet Claude (Zach Kenney), facing the possibility of being drafted for Vietnam, suggests he actually does come from another planet.
Most jarring, though—and in a good, jolting way—is the end of the first act. The group protest and “Be-In” climaxes not in a happy celebration of beads, flowers, freedom and full-frontal nudity, but in a violent police raid. It’s appropriate that ATC’s fresh look at Hair opens in the same week that the Inconvenience’s Stonewall riot Hit the Wall , which shows a more dangerous side of embracing counterculture in the same era, returns to a Chicago stage. Both shows take place in the Village, just months apart; the riots in Chicago’s Grant Park occurred in the interim. While Paulus’s Hair had the threat of Vietnam and the draft as its looming specter, Paparelli’s production provides a reminder that flower power could be both a provocation toward and a poor shield against more localized enemies.
Scenic designer Keith Pitts completely reorients the theater’s seating, placing the audience in a ragtag (and tightly packed) assortment of found furniture and emphasizing the venue’s nature as a converted warehouse—while also allowing for a welcome sense that there is a world outside this warehoused bubble. The intimacy of the space, and the artistry of music director Austin Cook, allow for some truly lovely new discoveries in the show’s loose, winning score, such as a nicely ragged, acoustic take on “Ain’t Got No” and an a cappella “Initials.”
Kenney’s beatific Claude, Christian Libonati’s earnest Woof, Mary Hollis Inboden’s effortlessly charming Jeanie, Aaron Holland’s robust Hud and Camille Robinson’s transcendent Dionne are among those feathering this tribe’s nest. As Claude’s sort-of co-leader, Berger, Sky Seals could stand to rein his efforts in just a bit; it’s almost as though he’s trying to project his charisma past a non-existent proscenium, while the rest of the cast understands they need only let us be in on their be-in. And what a smartly frayed, not-so-safe be-in it is.