'Hair' reaches across half a century at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre

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STOCKBRIDGE — For those of us of a certain age, there is a kind of romantic nostalgia that wraps itself around "Hair," dubbed the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" when it first opened off-Broadway in October 1967 at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Public Theatre, before it moved to Broadway in April 1968.

The culture at that time was filled with protest and anger at our government's pursuit of war in Vietnam. This was the Age of Aquarius — dropping out, free sex, drugs, long hair, anything to celebrate a counterculture in open rejection of bloody folly overseas.

Fifty years later, watching "Hair" in a fitful, if sincere, production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, you can't help but feel how little the distance is between what divided us as a nation then and what divides us now; how issues that concerned us then — race relations; what it means to be "the other;" our nation's fundamental values and rights and what we truly stand for; the strength and meaning of our institutions; the limits of presidential authority; the threats to our country not only from without but from within — concern us now, perhaps more so. You can't listen to "Air" (delivered with style by Livvy Marcus, Sarah Sun Park and Katie Birenboim), for example, without thinking about the assault on our environment being perpetrated by the Trump administration's EPA, even without Scott Pruitt. The sarcastically mocking references in song and dialogue to the disparaging, degrading ways in which people of color have been and are referred to by bigots and racists carry discomforting resonance. It's no accident, I think, that, in the face of today's #Resist Movement, the two big anti-Vietnam War protest sequences fill the intimate Unicorn Theatre with fierce urgency.

"Hair" not only was about reordering the structure of society, it also was about reordering the structure of theater. Rock musicals are a dime a dozen these days. "Hair" was the first Broadway musical built entirely on rock music and it opened a floodgate on Broadway.

And what a score, one of the richest, I think, among Broadway musicals. The Gerome Ragni/James Rado lyrics are pointed, cynical, devastatingly witty, observant. Galt MacDermot's music sounds with an original voice even as its honors some of its sources.

Beyond Broadway, that bold, tuneful, infectious rock score gave to the Pop Culture Songbook "Easy to Be Hard" (another song that takes on a different resonance theses days); the title song; "Aquarius"; the buoyant "Good Morning Starshine"; and, of course, the soaring anthemic plea that ends the show, "Let the Sunshine In."

Under Eric Svejcar's expert musical direction, the score is delivered with wit, impudence, a rich palette, nuance.

The show's structure, by design, is loose, often rambling. "Hair" is filled with sexuality, profanity, drugs (marijuana and, in an extended sequence, hallucinogens), group nudity in the first act finale (handled here with taste, discretion and a sweet innocence).

What story there is centers around a pure, naive, draft-age youth named Claude (Andrew Cekela), who is a misfit at home (his parents are played perfectly by Shayna Bliss and Nick Pankuch, who also play a news team). Facing the draft, he joins the Tribe, a group of anti-war hippies led by a friend of Claude named Berger (a commanding Brandon Contreras) and his girlfriend, Sheila (Kayla Foster in a nicely wrought performance) living a freewheeling bohemian lifestyle in New York. Will Claude burn his draft card or won't he? Will he report to the draft board as ordered or won't he? Those really are the only dramatic issues in a show whose story line is a mere pretext for getting from one musical number to the next.

But under Daisy Walker's direction, Cekela, who has a lyrical, pure singing voice, makes much of the book's meager opportunities. He finds layers, poignant layers at that, in ways no other actor Ive seen do this role has found. Cekela's unassuming attention to emotional detail gives this production a core, a spine.

There are some other standouts here, not the least of them Foster's expressive treatment of "Easy to Be Hard," delivered after her Sheila has suffered an abusive harangue from Contreras' Berger; and especially Latoya Edwards — sassy, saucy, sexy, impudent, in full command of her moments on stage from the opening "Aquarius" to "Ain't Got No" and the lustfully rich "White Boys."

For all the energy on the intimate Unicorn stage, for all the dash and style of Lisa Shriver's choreography, Walker's production moves in fits and starts, at times with a certain self-consciousness, as if the performers haven't quite surrendered to the rhythmic textures of the material. Scenic designer Jason Simms' barnlike setting doesn't help. His rear wall, broken by three windows, that stretches across the full width of the stage gives this production a claustrophobic feel.

"Hair" is a jumble of a show that often hits as much as it misses. "Hair" — and this production — is at its best when it is singing, which is most of the time. And there is that smashing, irresistible "Let the Sunshine In" finale which starts low and then builds with a steady insistence that finally erupts in an urgent expression of what is needed now as much as it was needed in 1968 — sunshine, hope. Now if only that rear wall on the stage could lift or part and open a horizon ...


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