"The Tribe"in full peace-and-love mode in "Hair." Photo by Jim Cox
Before I get to "Hair," the Old Globe Theatre's return to live, in-person productions after nearly a year and a half, I have to address my own return to live, in-person productions after nearly a year and a half.
I last experienced live theater in early March 2020 at the San Diego Rep. I've missed it immensely. Streamed productions and Zoom theater, while earnest attempts by theatrical companies to both remain connected to their audiences and to help sustain themselves financially during COVID-19, just don't make it. I'm sorry. There's no communal anticipation before the start of a show, no group response to the story or the performances, no shared catharsis.
So there I was on opening night of "Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" in the audience at the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. About half the packed house wore masks. I don't know what either the masked or the unmasked attendees felt, but I know what I felt: a profound sense of reclamation. After what has seemed much longer than 17 months, I had live theater with all its in-the-moment gifts of excitement and immersion, back in my life again. Our world is still far, far from safe and even further from normal. But for now there is theater once more.
Now, on to "Hair," the musical my parents warned me about back when they were warning me about everything.
It's tempting to dismiss the 1967 musical written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot, as a "period piece." But why is "Hair," set in the "Drop out, turn on, tune in" '60s, any more of a period piece than the WWII-set "South Pacific"?
Is "Hair" a reflection of its era and its ethos? Of course. By today's measure, the tie-dyed shirts and hippie beads and jargon both dreamy and defiant could constitute a kind of socio-cartoon kitsch. Forget all that when you get to the theater. If you can, appreciate "Hair" for what it is right now, right in front of you: a sometimes slapdash, often silly musical that at its most slapdash and silly does entertain, and at its most meaningful (more about Act II shortly) will touch you in ways you hadn't seen coming.
James Vasquez directs this Globe production -- no snap given the size of the cast, the shifts in mood and the sheer number of songs (nearly 40, though some in Act I are not much longer than snippets). Mayte Natalio's choreography is buoyant in a hippy-dippy way, and the costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso look right out of your parents' or grandparents' attic, depending on your age. Hell, maybe they're right out of your own attic.
If you're uninitiated, "Hair" tells the tale of "The Tribe," a group of young people living in, as the Old Globe's program reminds us, in "the fluid-abstract world of 1968" in New York City. We get to know just a few of them well, but "Hair's" only substantial conflict involves Claude (Tyler Hardwick), who's been drafted into the military and, unlike his fiercely rebellious cronies, isn't so quick to burn his draft card at the intermission-preceding "Burn-In." Prior to this, "Hair" is all over the place with hurried character introductions, "revealing" testimonies from said characters, rhetorical middle fingers to the establishment and the prudes of the time, and subplots that are not each and every one fully resolved.
Happily, the second act of "Hair" is everything the first act is not: It's cohesive. It's compelling. It says something on deeper than a surface level. Claude's crisis of conscience and self-identity manifests itself in a vividly staged, elaborate drug-trip sequence about not just the Vietnam War, but the American soul at the time. It's as if everyone around him, too, gets a reality check, but they do so without losing the free-spirited, perhaps misguided idealism of the era or of the show itself.
It shouldn't have taken me this long to get to the music, so I apologize, but there are some winning songs in "Hair." Of those you know (thanks to radio hits made of them), the opening "Aquarius" and the closing "Let the Sunshine In," which were combined into one by the Fifth Dimension, are a thrill to hear onstage. The latter is in its way anthemic. The title tune "Hair" is an anachronistic delight, following as it does a comic sequence in which an older couple questions the Tribe's long locks. The performance of the soulful "Easy to Be Hard" by Storm Lever lacked passion for me, and the goofy "Good Morning Starshine" while so familiar is out of place in the comparative seriousness of Act II.
Claude's "I Got Life" and "Where Do I Go?" not only have heft, but demonstrate the talented Hardwick's fine feel for the role and his emotive vocals.
As for the first act's "Donna," "Hashish" and "Sodomy," I remember being amused and scandalized by them as a kid listening to the "Hair" album, but they feel oh-so-tame now.
Among the cast, the Globe's "Hair" offers a would-be scene-stealer in Andrew Polec as the wildly comic Berger. He is the caricature of every square's idea of a hippie. This show would be remiss without one.
I expected to see a lot more people in the opening-night audience wearing hippie-vintage garb, but most whom I saw were not.
Aside from a peace sign that dangled from a bronze neck chain, I never had any of my own to begin with.
I wonder whatever happened to that peace-sign necklace. I like to think it still exists, somewhere, and that even tarnished it's saying "Make love, not war."
"Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" runs through Oct. 3 in the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat