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.
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