Squeaky Clean HAIR by Pantene Pro-V

hair_playThe most offensive thing about The Public’s current production of HAIR is how much we need an honest revival of this musical and how the opposite was delivered.

Fault falls first with the director, Diane Paulus. In directing a play that was intended to be for “the people,” as was announced from the stage before the show began, Paulus decided to stage the majority of the action for one third of the audience. Particularly disturbing about this move is the fact that most of the people who actually waited in a very long line all day for their tickets were sitting on the two sides of the house that were not being played to at all. I suppose performing for the seats reserved for corporate sponsors, theatre donors, and insiders was more important than holding to the spirit of what The Public used to understand forty years ago.

However, the problems with the directing didn’t stop with the staging. Paulus relies more on feelings of nostalgia for the Sixties than summoning the current day relevance of this piece. What were once controversial issues (e.g. drugs, sex, homosexuality) were handled in a cute manner rather than looking for ways to demonstrate to the audience that we really have a lot of the same hang-ups today. When Claude and Berger kiss, there is no real exploration of intimacy, just a follow-up pat on the back to remind us all that they’re just fooling around. When tribe members talk about and make use of drugs, there is no sense of the danger and excitement associated with such activities, just a reenactment of hippie clichés. This trend is so persistent that the audience cheers at the end of the song “Colored Spade” instead of being shamed and made uncomfortable by the continuing thread of racism and problematic race relations in this country today. On the whole, Paulus’s directing pats everyone on the back, as if to say, “we’ve come a long way baby,” instead of holding up the critical mirror that HAIR was meant to be.

Though I lay most of the blame with Paulus, the cast does little to save this misguided interpretation. Jonathan Groff, who plays a dull “Claude,” is once again miscast as the good-kid-gone-rebel. Both his voice and presence lack the intense vulnerability and angel-like spirit needed for this character. Will Swenson’s “Berger” was more entertaining to watch, but though he was very charming and comfortable on stage, he came off more as an actor unafraid to follow any random impulse (e.g. fake humping everyone on stage) than a dropout on the edge of a revolution. The cast, for the most part, came off as kids dressing up as “hippies,” lacking the realism that the piece demands. One of the few stand-out performances came from Andrew Kober’s “Margaret Mead” singing “My Conviction.” Kober’s voice is strong and his comic sensibilities keen. I found it odd that this “square” character should be the one who shines through all the pretense.

The set, designed by Scott Pask, is an uninspired plot of neglected grass that leaves something to be desired. Michael McDonald’s costumes and wigs are so squeaky clean and well maintained that one has to assume that these hippies go home every night to a loving mother who brushes their hair while running their laundry in Tide color guard. Again, the production holds to an idealistic view of the movement based on hindsight instead of exploring the dirty and gritty truth that we obviously still haven’t learned from.

On a final note, I think it’s time for someone to do a little doctoring on HAIR’s book. It’s a shame that such a pertinent and hard-hitting score should have a creaky, dated book with jokes that it takes a pop-culture historian to explain. I should think just reading the book would make this self-evident, and I wonder why The Public didn’t bother to address the issue. Then again, this is in keeping with the prevailing theme of the complacent parent that doesn’t seem to recognize the beautifully irreverent child it joyously bore us forty years ago. If The Public can’t revive HAIR, then perhaps it’s time for a new composer to step forward and give this generation its musical rather than wait for a revival to do it a second time. - C. J. Thom

cj_thom

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

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