Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pocket Review of "Hair" in Central Park

Thursday, August 14, 2008 
I have a very special place in my heart for HAIR, (so if you are expecting an unbiased review, ease on down the road. That’s not what The Pocket Review is all about). I first encountered it in its film incarnation on the Home Box when I was but a wee lass, and LOVED it. I knew most of the music, of course (it being the last musical to have so much success on the popular music charts – what with the likes of Three Dog Night and The 5th Dimension covering selections from it. I mean, come on - GIANTS of pop music, people), and was completely engaged with the story and characters.
This is (in part) owing to the fact that my parents, if not sho-nuff hippies, at least had hippie proclivities. Exhibit A: My father spent much of his short life dripping with sterling and turquoise jewelry, playing music for a living, and not noticing what color people were. Truly didn't notice. Not bad for a boy from Birmingham, Alabama. He also favored a certain tribalesque brown suede fringed jacket - we have photographic evidence of this (I am assuming that he did notice the color of the jacket).

Exhibit B: My mother was one of the first women in Birmingham to wear men's white T-shirts (braless, natch), bell bottom blue jeans (she actually made money selling them for $5 a pair, because they weren't available down yonder, yet), and love beads. This was a direct result of her having spent a year in upstate New York doing things like hanging in NYC, and hitchhiking to the 1966 World's Fair in Montreal. Suffice it to say, I grew up with a fundamental belief that war is wrong (one of the few convictions my wastrel pot-smoking parents managed to instill in me – just kidding. Mostly.)
My second experience with this show was in 1989, when a touring company performed it at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center. My faux beau and concert buddy at the time, Mark, got us tickets - front row center. The actor playing Berger asked me to hold his pants. (Later, flowers were placed in my hair, and I was pulled up on stage to dance for "Let the Sun Shine In") I was hooked. Not just on the stage version of this show, but on acting and performing. This was the first moment that I dared whisper in my secret heart that I wanted to do THAT - what they were doing.

Cut to 1992, and my third brush with HAIR (these are the jokes, folks). I was attending the University of Alabama and obtaining a degree in Public Relations. I was taking one theatre class as an elective: "Stage Movement". I was an absolute theatre groupie, attending every show in town and volunteering to do anything that got me in a theatre (like ushering, you pervs). I heard that HAIR had been selected as one of the main stage shows for that semester, and took it as a sign. I screwed up my courage and auditioned.

I cobbled a monologue out of a Carrie Fisher novel, the first line of which was, "I lost my virginity a total of three times." I learned "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," and practiced with a friend who accompanied me on the sly in various practice rooms of the music school. When my turn came to audition, I stepped out onto the black stage with the blinding white lights shining through me, it seemed, and became immediately aware that my knees were knocking (the only time in my life that this has happened). I stared as if hypnotized at my traitorous gams, then transferred my gaze to my left foot. I was so nervous, that I became irrationally convinced that I would pee in my shoe. Recalling my purpose for being there (after what seemed an eternity), I cleared my throat and started my monologue. I immediately fucked up:
Me: "I lost my virginity a total of TEN times."
Back row: Raucous laughter
My internal monologue: "Wait, is it that funny? I just said I lo - Oh shit!!!" (another quick glance at the shoe).I stumbled through. I nodded to the accompanist, who played the brief intro to my selection from Oklahoma. For reasons still unclear to me, I did not sing "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow”, but instead sang, "There's a bright copper glaze on the kettle." Nerves short-circuit my brain (and bladder), apparently. I hardly need say that I was not cast. Amazingly, this experience in no way tarnished my affection for the show (or acting).

However, at the risk of offending the purists, I will say that HAIR is maybe the only musical for which I find the film version superior. The film has a real story, whereas the stage show, not so much. The film also boasts some amazing performances (John Savage, Treat Williams, Nell Carter, etc.) Not to mention my favorite moment: Cheryl Barnes (who plays Hud's fiancee') singing the show-stopping "Easy To Be Hard" with the camera tight on her face and tears dripping off her cheeks. SO MUCH better to sing this in response to your man not coming home to help you raise the child you have together (because he is living on the streets and balls-deep in everyone in New York City, all the while ensconced in a truly kick-ass coat of Napoleaonic fabulousness) than singing it in response to a torn shirt, (a fugly shirt, at that).

And who can forget Edna Garrett being danced down the formal dining table, and goose-steeping over the fine china with Treat Williams during "I Got Life"? I certainly do not mean to cast asparagus at the stage version (aherm), I just prefer the film because it gives the audience a more in-depth look at the cause, not just the effect of the “tribal” movement - both in a broad social context and in an individual context. I feel it achieves this without compromising the energy and excitement of the stage show.

That energy is what HAIR is all about, and The Public Theatre’s “gaggle of hippi” definitely captures it and wings it at the crowd like monkeys flinging poo: the love, the rebellion, the bisexual sex orgies. 

Staging-wise, this production is very close to the original, which had its world premiere at The Public 40 years ago. (At least I imagine it is. I wasn’t even a gleam in my be-fringed Daddy’s eye, so what do I know?) My friend Aaron found this problematic, feeling that they should have updated it/made it edgier. I myself was happy to watch a female member of the tribe lying on her back with one leg extended straight in the air while a male tribe member pretended to perform cunilingus on her (her brown boot alternately spun lazily and jerked spastically throughout this exchange), and think how shocking and exciting it must have been in 1967. The staging is not the only original element to the show, as at least 3 of the orchestra members look as if they have been sitting on that bench clutching their instruments since the early 70’s at the latest, oblivious to the graying of their frizzy locks and mutton chops.

The cast is great, especially Allison Case, who plays “Crissy”, (and who does a superb job with “Frank Mills”), and Kacie Shiek, who plays “Jeanie”, (the pregnant, ditzy hippie). Another stand-out (despite a condition I call “girl butt”) is Jonathan Groff as Claude, whom I first saw in Spring Awakening (another exciting show – I saw it with Niambi, who turned to me at the end of Act I when cute lead schoolboy’s [Groff's] hand is in cute lead schoolgirl’s [Lea Michelle's] panties, and said, “This is not yo mama’s musical.” I said, “No shit.”). He has a great voice, and that indefinable star quality (though Howard Ashman of Beauty and the Beast fame surely wrote the line, “I’m especially good at expectorating!” for him. Say it, don’t spray it, Jonathan.)

Will Swenson, who plays Berger, most definitely looks too old to be a high school dropout (the dialogue suggests that he is expelled on the very day that some of the action takes place), but is still perfectly cast, somehow. He is a very engaging performer, and spends most of the play shirtless. Suffice it to say, I would totally have sex with him. He is lucky that this is the case, as I got up at 5:30AM after 4 hours of sleep to wait on line in Central Park for “free” tickets to this show with my beloved Paul Morris. (Let me just say to those who don’t know this about me that I am one cranky biznatch in the AM. I am a night person – that’s why I do theatre.)

While trying to find a comfy position in what amounted to a gutter (though we had a sleeping bag, a small table, and a deck of cards, and were by far- thanks to Paul- the most stylish people in the queue), and being serenaded by a flautist who played such classics as the “A-Team theme”, and then got lippy when no one wanted to “contribute any change for the musician”, I turned to Paul and said, “Berger better be hung like a Shetland Pony at the very least.” From what I could tell, he did indeed make a respectable showing, but I would have been happier had the lights been a bit brighter for the famous nude scene at the conclusion of Act I.

Overall, it was a truly authentic New York experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything (not even the part when we were in line, and treated to a 6’5 clownish man in a platinum afro wig, sunglasses, ladies’ peasant blouse, and peace necklace performing “Aquarius” for us with his boom box for accompaniment. Mostly, he spun around in a circle the whole time.) I laughed, I danced in my seat, I got chills a few times, and I cried – for Girl Butt, for hippies, and for the soldiers that are currently entrenched in yet another futile war. And, I did all of this in the company of great friends under a perfect summer sky with the moon looking like half an Alka Seltzer tablet that someone dipped in butter and smeared across the bottom of a cobalt glass.
And, isn’t that why we go to the theatre, anyway?
To see the world through buttered Alka Seltzer cobalt glasses?

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