by John Stoltenberg
When I saw the original Broadway production of Hair in the late sixties, my hair was shoulder length, and the slogan “Make love not war!” referred to pacifism pre-9/11 and fluid exchange pre-AIDs. Times have changed a lot (and I’m more shorn), yet this legendary “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” rocks on, its spirit and heartbeat as alive and well as ever. But why? Why is watching the show now with a cast not yet born then such a trip? I think the answer is simple: It’s because the radiant and thrilling production of Hair now on stage at the Keegan Theatre is an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.
When Hair began life on stage, many were shocked by (among other things) its radical candor about race, sex, drugs, and the nation’s wrongest war (till then). U.S. history since has arguably outstripped the show in shockingness. In those days young men who dissented from militarism demonstrated their opposition to the Vietnam War by burning their draft cards, at personal risk of arrest instead of induction—a scene touchingly evoked in the Keegan production. There is no equivalent symbolic action today. (How, for instance, does one protest the NSA’s unconstitutional electronic surveillance? Disconnect one’s phone? Nah, doesn’t have the same ring to it.) So much has transpired and altered in the U.S. socio-political landscape that Hair’s in-your-face critique might be assumed passé, a fondly remembered museum piece, a been-there-smoked-that hit of tuneful but irrelevant nostalgia. But it’s not. It feels fresh and of the moment. That Hair still inspires and stirs emotions, despite dramatic political climate change, is a wonder—an extraordinary testament to what live theater can do and be, and an experience not to be missed.
Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea so get this, it’s incredible. They understand that the essence of this show is the ensemble, the tribe, the company of singer-actors who play the parts and sing the songs. The love-in that is Hair can come into being only if we the audience believe there’s so much trust, cohesion, and affection among the company members that we’re a part of the happening too, that we are embraced by a communicable, vicarious sense of communal connection. In that respect, the Rheas reach perfection.
The terrific Paul Scanlan (as Claude) and the captivating Josh Sticklin (as his buddy Berger) head up an outstanding cast of tribe members that includes Danny Bertaux (Paul), Jamie Boyle (Hiram), Ian Anthony Coleman (Hud), Darius Tyrus Epps (Walter), Paige Felix (Natalie), Chad W. Fornwalt (Marc), Katie Furtado (Susannah), Autumn Seavey Hicks (Linda), Jade Jones (Leata), Emily Levey (Marjorie), Eben K. Logan (Dionne), Thony Mena (Jason), Christian Montgomery (Woof), Ines Nassara (Ronny), Lyndsay Rini (Crissy), Ava Silva (Diane), Kedren Spencer (Emmaretta), Dani Stoller (Jeannie), Ryan Patrick Walsh (Steve), and Caroline Wolfson (Sheila), featuring Peter Finnegan (dubbed Margaret Mead). By turns they each belt out a solo or more, and all sing gorgeous backup like the sustaining support system everyone longs for. Every moment onstage, they seem to genuinely enjoy one another, and their spirited mutual admiration is irresistible. This ensemble is not only highly skilled; it’s the kissingest cast I’ve ever seen.
It’s no mystery why Hair continues to thrive on stage and sustain its vital place in audiences’ hearts and minds. For better and for worse, the historical context in which it arose nearly a half century ago is no longer with us. But we have not lost our longing to belong. Hair reinvigorates that aspiration. Hair revives that idealism and lifts us. And as staged at Keegan Theatre, it’s the best contact high in town.