The tribal musical "Hair" has returned to Milwaukee almost half a century after it first sent shockwaves through the country.
It was groundbreaking stuff back in 1968 when it opened on Broadway with a cast of young people, a duffle bag full of great songs and a profound desire to poke fun at almost every institution in America.
Skylight Music Theatre has resurrected the musical for its final performance of the season. The show opened Friday night with roaring applause from an audience filled with people (I being one of them) who were around when the world of hippies was in full flower.
The production, which runs through June 8, is an interesting one from several perspectives. First of all, almost all of the actors are local actors, which is somewhat of a surprise. Many have very little experience in the world of professional theater.
Having said that, the cast acquitted itself with the kind of raw enthusiasm demanded by "Hair." This is not an actor’s play. It’s a play for singers and dancers, and Viswa Subbaraman – the artistic director of the Skylight, as well as music director for this show – led them in comfortable places for each song.
Jeremy McQueen created the wild choreography that captured the spirit of the times and the unbridled nature of the world of peace and love.
"Hair" is a musical about a special time period in our history. The world of hippies flourished in the mid-1960s, and it was a peaceful world. The spectacular opening number "Aquarius" clearly spells out what it was like.
"Harmony and understanding,
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation"
It is this slice of Americana that is the strength of "Hair." With songs like "Aquarius," "Hair," "Easy to be Hard" and "Good Morning Sunshine" all making the Billboard charts in 1969, this music has achieved a mark not matched by any other musical ever.
But there are 33 songs in this show. That means that 29 of them didn’t make the Billboard charts. If you think it’s hard to write four great songs, imagine how difficult it is to write 33 of them.
The first act of the show is an absolute delight, full of freedom and free of daily care. The second act, however, is another story. Suddenly, the production takes the world of hippies way too seriously. From a rag tag band of young people who were best at dropping out, they suddenly became almost vicious anti-war demonstrators.
For those of us who lived through this, we know that a small band of militant activists, including Rennie Davis and David Dellinger, strategized to co-opt the hippie movement and turn them into anti-war zealots.
Spurred by the Tet Offensive in 1968, they succeeded in getting kids who had dropped out to drop back in and begin to care deeply about crap they didn’t give a hoot about just a couple of years earlier.
It was a powerful time in our history, but it wasn’t so powerful in this production.
The play got bogged down in a dizzying parade of visions from a drug trip taken by Claude, the young man torn between being a hippie and being almost anything else. From Native Americans with toy bow-and-arrow sets to murderous nuns who strangled people with their rosaries to Hare Krishna chanters to Vietcong soldiers with straw hats to a black Abraham Lincoln to exploding armaments, this dream was an endless nightmare for Claude. He wasn’t the only one.
And all of this came from smoking just one joint.
The production ran two and a half hours (including a 20 minute intermission), which is a long time to get beat over the head with how bad war is and how good free love is. The length is exacerbated by the uneven quality of the songs, singing and dancing.
Director Ray Jivoff has done an admirable job of taking actors of wildly varying degrees of experience and training, and molding them into an expressive whole.
But somewhere along the line, someone should have had an idea that too much of a good thing is, well, too much. Nobody is asking me, but if I was in charge, I would have cut this to a 90-minute, one act production. I would have crammed all the great songs into that act, and let these kids sing and dance their little hearts out.
What you would get, I think, is a crisp show with the very best that "Hair" has to offer without the preaching.
There are a couple of other things that I found troubling.
The hippie movement – and for that matter, the anti-war movement – was largely made up of white kids. Oh, there was some talk about racial harmony, but most of the black kids were on the cusp of the great Civil Rights Movement.
Oh, there was some crossover, but while hippies were still talking about free love, Stokely Carmichael had become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was moving on to become the head of the Black Panthers. They didn’t care much about free love and peace.
The other thing that I found a bit disconcerting was that the cast spent a great deal of time in the audience, talking to audience members and even getting them up to dance onstage at the end. Walking into the Cabot Theatre before the play, the actors were strewn about, talking and interacting with the crowd.
The whole thing felt just a little bit forced. Almost like they were saying, "Hey, look how cool this is daddy-o. We are coming out here to hang with you."
I half expected someone to offer me either a joint, some brownies or a paper cone of cotton candy.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Aug. 26, 2014
The Spring Green-based APT has announced that Carrie Van Hallgren, a highly respected theater administrator, will become the new managing director of the 35-year-old company.
Published Aug. 26, 2014
I spent a lot of time in the last week watching the Little League World Series baseball games, but watching these kids I found myself wondering whether it's really a good thing for kids to take something like baseball this seriously at this early an age.
Published Aug. 25, 2014
Todd Gawronski - who almost single-handedly transformed Bradford Beach from a desolate, dirty and dangerous place into the sparkling safe location it is now - is spreading his wings to six other Milwaukee County parks, with more to come.
Published Aug. 24, 2014
Almost anyone who has ever gone to school, especially at the college level, can relate to a story about the pompous "I'm too good to be doing this" professor who takes a macabre delight in whittling his students down to size. That's the essence of "Seminar," the Broadway hit by Theresa Rebeck that opened this week at The World's Stage Theatre Company.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
After decades of playing both games and being on both sides of the winner/loser equation, I've determined the top 10 shots to buy when you lose at either bar dice or liar's poker.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
After a recent visit to review Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout called Wisconsin's very own American Players Theatre in Spring Green the "finest classical-repertory company in the U.S."
Published Aug. 21, 2014
When a play starts with a half hour monologue from a frail old man who looks like a gentle breeze might turn him to dust, you begin to think this is going to be a long, long evening. But after just a few moments, Marcus Truschinski got us into the rhythm, and off we went into the American Players Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's "Travesties."
Published Aug. 21, 2014
There are a lot of emotions that roar through someone, including me, when you hear the word "autism." And there is nothing like living with someone with autism, even for a brief time, to understand both the difficulties and opportunities of the disorder.
Published Aug. 19, 2014
With the recent announcement that the team is going to retire Brett Favre's number and put him into the team Hall of Fame, attention has been turned toward greatness: Who was the greatest Packer of them all? Not one of the greatest, but THE greatest. We get to the bottom of it here.
Published Aug. 15, 2014
Gretchen Mahkorn is 21. She's an actor. She has a BFA in acting from a respected program. She's smart. She's determined. She networks. She has a resume. She has history onstage from a very young age. And her next acting job is in a play produced by the theater company she founded when she was just 16 years old, The World's Stage Theatre Company.