The Bong Show

Nostalgic Hair revival makes Best Tressed List

Despite the lack of a single compelling reason to create -- or to witness -- a remount of Hair, the version now playing at Planet Earth Theatre is as good a production as you're likely to see.

This Hair -- which really ought to be retitled Hairpiece, given the number of wigs employed to cover up its players' fashionably short locks -- captures perfectly the program's youthful energy and gritty style. Where producers of this tuneful museum piece often make the mistake of polishing its coarse ambiance, this version is enhanced by the filthy environs of Planet Earth's black box, and held aloft by an appropriately grungy (and largely talented) young cast.

When Hair was first presented at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in the spring of 1968, it was about more than the now-familiar pop hooks of its musical score. The show, charted as a free-flowing series of songs, riffed on youth unrest in then-radical times, covering African-American and anti-war protests and exposing theatergoers to a freaked-out, drug-induced youth culture. Its melodic hippie/yippie/flower child protestations were news to conservative Americans, who saw their worst fears (drugs, free love, interracial sex) musicalized in a place where more polite entertainment was usually presented.

That '60s show: The cast of Hair is too young to have seen the original play.
That '60s show: The cast of Hair is too young to have seen the original play.

Thirty-two years later, most of these issues are resolved or forgotten. Two boys kissing or a third shouting, "Hey lady, can you hold my pants?" as he disrobes before a twentysomething audience member is hardly offensive, and the naked be-in of Hair's first-act finale is more silly than shocking. Today, Hair is retro; we go to hear a handful of pop standards and leave wondering what its young cast members derive from flipping off LBJ or chanting, "Hell no, we won't go."

Planet Earth's production captures an appropriately nostalgic spirit. Helmed by the company's completely bald artistic director, Greg London, this Hair is a tangled time capsule that plays like a revue of popular sounds and notions of another era. The four-piece band, featuring London on bass guitar, sends '60s sound bites onto a stage crowded with formerly shocking visions: a draft-card burning; a love-in; an especially goofy acid trip lighted by an honest-to-gosh strobe lamp. We leave feeling not that we've been cleansed by the show's once-revolutionary spirit, but amused at the memory of peaceniks and perhaps relieved that tie-dye never really made a comeback.

We leave entertained, as well. The players, none of whom was living when the show premièred, perform best as an ensemble. Musical numbers that require many voices fare better than several solo pieces, although there are delightful exceptions in Lynn M. Jones' "Easy to Be Hard" and Nancie Suzanne Willis' prettily old-fashioned "Frank Mills." Other standouts include Denny McNamara, whose Berger is sufficiently boastful and full-voiced, and Kristen Gifford, whose pregnant Jeanie provides pleasant comic relief. Unfortunately, young Trever Loren has neither the pipes nor the presence for Claude, the show's male lead. His winsome warbling and gawky portrayal of a would-be draft dodger belong to a lesser production.

There are other problems as well: Laurie Case's tag-team choreography features far too many kickball changes and cheer-squad synchronizations, and a good deal of London's blocking finds his players singing to the playhouse's center aisle. But the overall spirit is one of unbridled glee and well-tuned improvisation, a strength that propels several of the longer group scenes. (My personal favorite moment happened offstage when, during the performance, an audience member attempted to exit the rest room located just behind the bandbox. Set upon by the cast, who happened to be just then making their entrance from the wings, this matron crossed her arms over her pocketbook and waited while two dozen ersatz hippies danced around her singing "Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna . . ." on their way to the stage.)

While the recently teenaged cast must be chuckling over the quaint concerns of their characters ("So there's an American flag sewn on my ass . . . so what?"), and if nothing they do onstage can be called mind-blowing, their collective energies efficiently recall our recent past. What might have been a listless reminder of regrettable fashion and deplorable politics makes for a memorial of swell songs and stirring sentiment that you won't want to miss.

 
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