Hair

Slide1I shouldn’t be partisan.  Anybody can read this and as a journalistic document or review, this should appeal to all people.  Though there is something undeniably liberal about the classic 1968 musical Hair, which the University of Pittsburgh is currently staging through November 20th.  You can see it when you walk in the door, a big “Love trumps Hate” sign.  You can see it in the diversity of the cast, the hippie mentality.  You can see it in the director’s statement in the program:

Our production aims to embrace the original purpose of Hair: to protest, praise and call to action.  We wanted to put the concerns of today’s youth on stage—to show how these songs live in our world now.  While our cast members may not have experienced the pain of a nation torn apart by war, we can all recognize an electorate toxically divided, and political rhetoric coarsened and vulgarized.  We hear people argue in favor of religious intolerance, LGBTQ+ marginalization, and xenophobia.  We see a culture of sexual violence dismissed with the wave of a hand.  We march in the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed person of color. 

And to go beyond the partisan opinion to talk about this production as an entity that is representative of two times and places: I have to definitively say this is very good.  It is great.  Badass and wonderful!  It has made me proud to be alma mater at Pitt.  I didn’t know they had it in them.  I am impressed and I urge everyone who can to see this musical.

First of all, the students are so into it.  This is an essence given from the before the play.  The actors freely walk around the stage, on the balconies, through the crowd.  This seems gimmicky, but it does a fantastic job of setting up a vibe.  There is a lot of commitment in this play, which is a point I’ll come back to.  I really loved the candidness with which these actors could improvise.

The kids on the balcony yell down to the audience, encouraging play: “Hey, I like your shoes!”

A co-actress puts her barefoot up on the balcony rail, the same actor exclaims, “I like your shoes too!”

A girl with long hippie hair yells to an actor resting in anticipation on a bus-like set piece, “Eugene!  How’s the bus?”

“Groovy!” he replies, with two thumbs up.

This is corny.  I mean, Hair is a broadway musical.  It’s corny in it’s incarnation.  But this really gives the atmosphere that this was probably a really fun show to do.  This is massively important.

“Get off the rail!” A boy with a ‘Free Hugs’ signs yells at his co-star.

A fringe-vested hippie retorts, “I don’t follow rules!”

And the long-hair ‘free hugs’ kid replies, “You have to follow some rules, like gravity.  I don’t want you falling on these good people before the show begins!”

There is an air in the Charity Randall Theatre.  For a gigantic limestone castle throne room, they do their best at making it seem like it’s invaded by the sensation of kids on grass keeping on the “Don’t Step on the Grass” grass.  Signs hang which say, “At what age did you lose your compassion?” and “Hate is easy, Love takes Courage.”

At this point, I’m a third done with my review and I haven’t talked about the actual show at all yet.  There’s a reason for that.  This play is so much about atmosphere.  It’s about a time which felt imperative: 1967.

The uncertainty of the bomb has haunted the world for more than 20 years, and the apocalyptic vision of Vietnam and its draft are absolutely devastating for those just coming into their existential consciousness.  JFK’s death in ’63 and Malcolm X’s death in ’65 were signs of progressive control being lost; this dystopian reality protracted onto the visionary aesthetic qualities of drugs and music in order to create an apex of finale.  This was a time when the end felt near.  And the realizations this musical yearns towards is to make clear that life is beautiful and should be cherished with every ounce of being.

Please note: Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.  Hair premiered on April 29th, the same month.

This musical is about time.  The dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” is a premonition of some transition, something key that happens amidst the cyclone of fear, hate and disaster.  This musical is medicine.  It comes at a pinpoint, right now.  Xenophobia and bigotry has saddled this country in an incredulous lurch and this play synthesizes two points of time when the future is unknown, scary and the present is startling and beautiful, i.e. 1967 and right now.

The production is stupendous.  Give credence to choreographer Amanda Olmstead, a veritable shepherd in her own right.  At any given time there are between 1-31 odd young adults bounding electrically on stage, synchronized with impeccable grace.

I’d like to also give a huge thank you to director Cindy Croot for making this production so palpable.  This was a well-felt illustration of a historically viable and so alive today, thematically.  There is so much audience interaction.  So much in this play is in your face and very active.  There are real tears on stage.  Each actor gives a genuine performance.  As I’ve said before, these kids are into it.  This is a diverse cast, racially and sexually.  I understand that’s the original casting as well, but the diversity of the cast is so representative of how I see millennials.  This is a play that celebrates blackness, queerness, free-thought and apostasy.  It tries to really go places on the astral plane, a discovery of inner-self and outer universe.  It subscribes so heavily to the meanings of Man in the big question of “Why?”  and this production seems to really live in that zone.  We are there.

There were a couple hang-ups.  The sound had some issues, but I imagine juggling thirty mics is an absurd task for a tech-person.  I felt like some of the songs could have been louder.  Perhaps that’s the acoustics of the room.  And that’s not to say that some of the singers really did go beyond their inhibiting means and project an exorcising weight towards the audience.  Particularly the songs, “Walking in Space,” “Easy to be Hard,” and “Let the Sunshine In” absolutely kill it.

I would love to point out more highlights, but there’s too many.  There are 31 actors and the musical really allows for distinct stars for nearly all of its 27 songs.

One thing I will comment on is the nakedness of the actors on the stage during intermission,  playing something outside of the musical: The Zombies’ “Time of the Season”.   The audience chatters to themselves.  Some of the other actors saunter about, but they are engaged with what’s on stage:  listening to the guitarist, the actor bongoing on the speaker and the impressive male soprano.  They are hearing this drum circle atmosphere over the disaffected small talk that creates the sound of a typical intermission.  It’s such a commitment to the feeling.  You can just tell these kids are into this show.  This epitomizes an agency for them, and thank god.  It is meaningful and spiritual in its body, which is these 31 actors who move electrically synchronized on stage.  They are comfortable and it shows in their risks and their timing.

This whole play has timing.

It is diverse and shows such an immense diversity of singers throughout, outlining a truly collective piece.

This show is medicine.  It is relevant.  It is spiritually uplifting and most importantly it is truly, truly beautiful.

Special thanks to the University of Pittsburgh for complimentary press tickets. Hair runs at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland through November 20th. Tickets and more information can be found here.