The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

‘Hair’ at the Studio: ’60s tribal love musical returns

Thursday, August 7, 1997, 0:00
Section: Awards,Journalism

Virginia Press Association

This is one of three Potomac News reviews that won me a first place Virginia Press Association award in the Critical Writing category for medium-size newspapers in January 1998.

In its day, “Hair” was the musical that caused trouble. It insulted hallowed institutions, celebrated rebellion, featured nude actors — briefly — and rocked and rolled on Broadway.

Twenty-nine years later, “Hair” has returned to Washington, D.C., in a new production at the Studio Theatre.

The production is full of energy, sex-appeal and passion. But times have passed it by, and the anti-Vietnam, pro-hippie musical feels a little hollow in the 1990s.

For those of us who missed it the first time around — or weren’t even born — the legendary musical is about a group of drop-outs and protesters living on the streets, or in communal “pads.” But the spectre of Vietnam hovers over them, with one character finally getting drafted for the war.

The Studio production certainly captures the spirit of the times. The first act, the “love” portion of this “tribal love musical,” is enough to steam up anyone’s glasses. The cast is sexy, to put it mildly, and their gyrations and flirtations crank the heat up in the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage.

The musical, unfortunately, is structured in such a way that the first act, while fun, doesn’t have much drama to it. That’s all saved for the second act, where Claude (the excellent Jason Gilbert) wrestles with what to do about being drafted. His friends urge him to burn his draft card, and while he’s scared of death — hauntingly portrayed in two battle scenes — he also feels an uncool pull of patriotism.

Being a hippie for Claude is a lifestyle choice, not a political one, and although he’s the not the only one of his “tribe” of hippie drop-outs and protesters who feels that way, he’s the only one willing to even come close to admitting it.

More than two decades after the fall of Saigon, Gilbert and the cast of “Hair” make the idea of death in Southeast Asia, for a cause that was murky at best, terrifying.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with standout acting performances by Gilbert as Claude, Nell Mooney as the pregnant Jeanie, Chris Noll who plays Woof as though the character were on loan from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Larry Baldine as the self-centered Berger. The cast are no slouches in the musical department, either, with Rebecca Davis, Tracie Nicole Thoms and Kathleen Maguire blowing the roof off the theater with their vocal chops.

Not content with just the story, songs and costuming, even the Studio production’s staging harkens back to the 1960s. Audience members shift rooms with the players several times, and the cast is very “hands-on” with the audience. (In 19 months of reviewing plays for the Potomac News, “Hair” on Sunday was the first time an actress has kissed me during a performance.) The approach prompted a few nervous giggles from audience members at first, especially those sitting on the floor with cast members, but ultimately it works.

Seeing “Hair” may be a revelation for those too young to know it except from its soundtrack. Who knew that “Let The Sun Shine In” is actually a haunting, even eerie sorrowful song? (Well, my parents did, but who listens to their parents talk about the 1960s?)

This isn’t to say the Studio production is total flashback to the 1960s: Most of the men’s hair styles are hardly the flowing locks celebrated in the title song, and K’dara Korin (who plays Hud) sports a wildly anachronistic nipple ring. And there’s at least one bad, bad wig worn by an ensemble member.

And although the performance itself works as a whole, the production comes off as little more than a time capsule, with the same relevancy as the animatronic robots in the Hall of Presidents in Disney World. The sting of “Hair” is lessened, to put it mildly, when we have a president who has smoked marijuana and protested the Vietnam War.

The musical would been more of a rebellion during the Reagan-Bush years — when ’60s nostalgia was still hip, incidentally — or, if Studio had really wanted to ruffle some feathers, during the Persian Gulf War.

For all the love, lust, passion and pain in this production, its timing means it comes off feeling a little too … safe.

Which is a total bummer, man.

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