Arts & Culture

Review: Impact of ‘Hair’ lessens over time, but Theater League production can still soar with iconic songs

Ashley Arnett, Jos N. Banks and Eden Richmond star in “Hair.”
Ashley Arnett, Jos N. Banks and Eden Richmond star in “Hair.” Courtesy photo

Even after 46 years, when the cast of “Hair” bursts into the earnest, insistent and haunting finale, “Let the Sunshine In,” the moment can still leave you with goosebumps in its plea to bridge the generation gap. Some things about this Vietnam War-era “American tribal love-rock musical” are emotionally timeless.

But even though the groundbreaking – and now classic – music is mostly intact, including a couple of newly resurrected original songs that never made it to Broadway, the touring production that came to Century II on Tuesday night as part of the Theater League series felt a little sluggish between numbers.

Director Charles Roy let the dialogue meander and drag as though everything were keyed to the pot-induced pace of a couple of scenes. You kept wanting to prod the players along to get them back to the music, where they could really come alive.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a purist, because the show is about my make-love-not-war generation, and I still remember how raw the anti-war, pro-rights (blacks, women, gays), counterculture feelings were that the show captured. The script, with some new rewrites by original author James Rado (co-author with Gerome Ragni and composer Galt MacDermot), hasn’t exactly gone soft. But it doesn’t seem to have the bite, the outrage or the glorious rebelliousness either.

“Hair” was so of-its-time when it changed the face of Broadway in 1968 that no revival could probably ever quite match the original impact. And that’s a loss for later generations, who have to make do with the disappointing 1979 Milos Forman movie version (which left out some songs and turned others into bubblegum pop anthems) or stage revivals that can’t help slipping into flower-power nostalgia.

The impact of this production comes from the exuberant, supercharged and tuneful cast, led by Erik Kopacsi as idealistic would-be draft dodger Claude, Joshua Wiles as irrepressible free spirit Berger, Eden Richmond as politically active college student Sheila and Shahi Teruko as feminist/black power advocate Dionne.

Kopacsi has a powerful voice that soars to impressive heights in “I Got Life” but can also deliver the sweetness of the newly resurrected ballad “Xanaplanetooch,” about an ideal planet he imagines while tripping out on drugs. This latter song is pleasant but sort of a throwaway; no wonder it didn’t make the original Broadway cut.

Richmond as Sheila, who considers herself the real power behind Claude and Berger, because they’re talkers while she’s a doer, gives unexpected and intriguing phrasing to “Easy to Be Hard” as well as a haunting turn to “Good Morning, Starshine.”

And Teruko as Dionne stands out with several glittering musical gems, from leading the raunchy Motown-esque “White Boys” to the bitterly satirical “Happy Birthday, Abie Baby.” She and the other members of the tribe harmonize beautifully on “Dead End,” the other newly resurrected original song about racial barriers thrown up by the Establishment. It’s a solid addition to a score we already know.

In the most likable performance – by design as well as by personal dint – Wiles as bare-chested, headband-wearing, loincloth-flapping Berger is the embodiment of delightfully unbridled, infantile narcissism. Wiles teases and flirts with audience members in an opening moment but keeps his character so utterly guileless that you forgive all his wonderfully silly preening. His character is simply drunk – make that stoned – on life and youth.

In an interesting aspect, the music is played by the actors themselves, who are armed on stage with guitars, various kinds of drums, keyboards and an occasional flute or trumpet. That continues a trend that seemed to start with the revivals of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.” In any case, this cast produces a full, satisfying accompaniment to their singing (although the guitar solos didn’t quite stand out on “Electric Blues,” perhaps from a momentary sound problem).

While the show is vintage, there are still elements of rough (if playful) language and full frontal (if nonsexual) nudity for sensitive audience members to contend with. Both are brief (the nudity is only 20 seconds at the end of Act I with “Where Do I Go?”) and, in context, they are not bothersome. But they will raise some eyebrows. Be prepared.

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