Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unruly 'Hair' Provides Only Strands of Enjoyment -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Hair
Touring production of Broadway revival
Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre
Chicago
Thru March 20, 2011
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I realize the extent that Hair changed the face of Broadway when it first let the sunshine in--following an off-Broadway run the previous year--in 1968. Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, nudity, racial harmony, hippies and peace protests all must have seemed pretty radical, at least within the theaters at the time.

As such, given its topical relevance and revolutionary bent in both sound and style, I imagine the relative lack of structure (and to some extent, substance) was not only forgiven, but admired. Broadway always needs mold-breaking musicals, and I would guess that Hair was one of the most pronounced successes in that regard.

Prior to seeing a touring version--albeit with a non-Equity cast--of the 2009 Broadway revival at Chicago's beautiful Ford Center/Oriental Theatre, I'd only seen Hair onstage once, at a very low-level community theater production. I wasn't overly enamored, but I recall it as a good showcase for exuberant young actors, with high energy in a low-rent setting a workable mix given the loose construction of the show.

But in a huge downtown Chicago theater, as part of my Broadway in Chicago series, I expected a bit more. And while I can envision that particularly stellar lead actors can potentially elevate the material beyond its flaws--and perhaps this explains the Tony Award earned by the Broadway revival--the young, nondescript cast in Chicago couldn't compensate for a musical clearly showing its age and limitations.

Although the politics and characters of Hair are strongly tied to the show's '60s origins, a lot of the messaging remains resonant and I don't think modern irrelevance is the culprit. Rather, especially after seeing subsequent mold-breaking musicals that are just much better overall--including Rent, Spring Awakening and In The Heights--I had a hard time seeing past Hair's sketchy book, lack of scenery, minimal choreography, underdeveloped characters and, despite a few marvelous songs, only a so-so score.

Yes, it was fun to hear "Aquarius," "Hair," and "Let the Sunshine In," but other than "Manchester England" and the lovely (though kinda unnecessary) ballad, "Frank Mills," nothing else really caught my ear, even in listening to the cast recording beforehand.

Act I has some nice moments in introducing the numerous characters, few of which really stood out from one another (even the two leading  characters, Berger and Claude, seemed relatively similar, at least as embodied in Chicago), but in full wasn't all that engrossing. And when Act II featured a 40-minute acid trip, it seemed unfair that the audience had to watch it without any chemical enhancements (except, I guess, for those who took LSD on the way down).

By the time of the extended finale of "Let The Sunshine In," complete with audience members on-stage--the ones who had paid nearly $100 for orchestra seats--Hair was feeling much like a parody of itself, despite a rather emotional ending.

Although I had perceived Hair as a classic musical going it, and was high with anticipation given the plaudits for the Broadway revival, there just didn't seem to be enough show to fill the Oriental stage, nor the 2-1/2 hour running time. To be fair, it was officially a preview performance, so although I highly doubt I would find this production (with a cast devoid of anyone with any Broadway credits) superlative on any occasion, maybe I just happened to catch it on a bad Hair night. 

1 comment:

G1000 said...

I just saw it, and rest assured that you didn't catch it on a "bad Hair night". I share most of your issues with the show, particularly the extended hallucination scene. "Underdeveloped characters" is putting it mildly, and I also did notice the lack of choreography. More importatnly is the fact that the story doesn't flow at all, and there rarely seems to be anything at stake (at least until the final few minutes).

However, the one area I will disagree with you is the score. It's far better than "so-so". The concluding rendition of "Let the Sunshine In" is chillingly beautiful, and great songs you didn't mention include "Easy to Be Hard", "Walking in Space", "I Got Life", and "Three-Five-Zero-Zero".

Agree with pretty much everything else you said, though, including your three-star rating. The cast gave it their all, and most of them were really good. But this is really a dated piece of musical theatre. It either needs to go away, or else be completely retooled. Disappointing.