The Age of Aquarius is dawning again — and bell bottoms are back — at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, which is presenting the landmark hippie-era musical “Hair” through Oct. 22. The time and place is identified in the program as “New York City and the fluid-abstract world of 1968.” Groovy!
With its song about LBJ, its “Hare Krishna” chant and its prediction that “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars” — it hasn’t really worked out that way 55 years later, has it? — “Hair” does, unavoidably, seem very dated, at times. “Now that I’ve dropped out, why is life dreary, dreary?/Answer my weary query, Timothy Leary, dearie,” sings one character, at one point (does anyone under 40 still know who Timothy Leary is?).
But the score (lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot), as a whole, is still a wonder. And though portions of the musical are plotless, and the story sometimes veers off into drug-induced hallucinations, everything does coalesce, late in the second act, and end in an emotionally compelling way.
“Hair” has always been a big, messy marvel of a musical — and one that changed the course of musical theater history, with its rock sound and countercultural sensibilities — and I will always relish the opportunity to see it.
This production, featuring direction by James Vásquez and original choreography by Mayte Natalio, was originally presented at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2021. It’s not a radical reinterpretation, but still conveys a sense of boldness, just because “Hair” is such a bold creation in the first place.
Jordan Dobson has a magnetic presence as the serious, soul-searching Claude. I was less impressed by Andrew Polec, who seemed too clownish and smirky to me as the musical’s other main character, Berger. Other standouts in the cast include Olivia Puckett as the politically active Sheila (who gets to sing the musical’s best ballad, “Easy to Be Hard”), Angel Sigala as the hedonistic and often very funny Woof, and Bailey Day Sonner as the sweetly innocent Chrissy.
The score, which has about 40 songs (some very short), is loaded with powerful anthems (“Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “Hair,” “I Got Life,” “Good Morning Starshine”) and yearning ballads (“Where Do I Go?” and “Frank Mills,” in addition to “Easy to Be Hard”).
“Colored Spade” — in which Hud (Tré Frazier), an African American, simply lists phrases that have been used as racial epithets — still stings. “Air,” a quirky little environmental protest song sung by the pregnant Jeanie (Olivia Oguma), still seems painfully relevant. The trippy “Walking in Space” effectively evokes the feeling of a drug experience.
“Manchester, England” (which contains the Timothy Leary reference, above) still comes across as a charming, catchy signature song for Claude, who is really from Queens, N.Y., but pretends he is from Manchester because it makes him seem cooler.
The infamous all-cast nude scene from the original production (at the end of the first act) remains. But it is so brief — with the actors standing in near-total darkness, at the back of the stage — that it doesn’t have much of an impact.
While feminism is part of the message of “Hair,” I couldn’t help noticing that the only three female characters whose relationships are explored (Sheila, Jeanie and Chrissy) are pining for men (Berger, Claude and the unseen Frank Mills, respectively) who barely acknowledge their existence. This seems very old-fashioned: These women don’t feel complete without their men, while the play’s men are lustful but show little interest in love. And while homosexuality is acknowledged, the musical’s book writers (Ragni and Rado) didn’t go so far as to put two characters in an actual homosexual relationship.
I was a little surprised that “Black Boys” and “White Boys,” twin retro-R&B odes to interracial sexual attraction in the original production, were not included in this one. I’m not sure why they weren’t there, but it’s nice to think that maybe it’s because interracial dating and marriage has become so widely accepted since 1968 that these songs are no longer necessary. Maybe we have made some progress, after all.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank will present “Hair” through Oct. 22. Visit tworivertheater.org.
Click HERE for a look at 20 “Hair” songs sung by pop and rock recording artists.
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