The new production of the legendary hippie rock musical Hair, through Feb. 1, 2015 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens, is a burst of colorful, smoky energy with a huge cast in a very small space, and creative generosity to match.
With book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, Hair premiered off-Broadway in 1967 and the following year transferred to Broadway, where it ran for four years. A successful New York revival in 2009 took a parallel path. But the show has always had inherent problems, with an almost nonexistent storyline and main characters who are more symbolic than flesh-and-blood.
As a result, much of the show and nearly all of Act I plays out more like a stoned variety show than musical theater, with the lead characters and the Tribe of hippies blasting out musical numbers proclaiming their generation’s attitudes and preoccupations rather than developing a narrative. The story, such as it is, revolves around a handful of flower children dealing with the prospect of the boys being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. While his friends burn their draft cards in protest, Claude (Torrey Wigfield) wrestles with conflicting pressure from his parents (and his own conscience) to do his patriotic duty.
The action tightens up and becomes compelling as a story only in Act II when we see Claude in uniform, hair shorn, plunged into combat. Before that he has come across as childish, weak-spined, and frankly not very interesting compared to his friends, among them the jovial showman Berger (Bart Mather), the political firebrand Sheila (Carman Napier), and the Mick Jagger-obsessed Woof (Greg Ramsey).
It’s Sheila who gets to sing two of the show’s best and best-remembered numbers, “Easy to be Hard” and “Good Morning Starshine.” Together with a few other songs, like “Aquarius” and “Hair,” these are a big part of the reason the show has remained in the zeitgeist for almost half a century. Directed by Richard Mazda and choreographed with gorgeous wolf-pack flair by Mary Lauren, the many numbers whiz by with infectious vigor.
Led by keyboardist and music director Anthony Hollock, the band holds back its volume admirably, but given the small theater and the lack of amplification, some of the solo-sung lyrics are too quiet to hear. I have mixed feelings about musicals done entirely without vocal amplification. I dig the organic feel and the necessity to “lean in” to hear. And in a quiet song like “Easy to be Hard,” or with a powerful voice like that of the singer who leads the opening number “Aquarius,” a solo voice can cut through fine.
I dig less not being able to hear. When the voices of the Tribe build up behind the lead singers, the lead singer’s words get lost. Wigfield and several other cast members, though they have nice vocal tone, doesn’t possess the pipes for such a situation. By contrast, when the full company sings it’s often glorious.
I also strongly suspect that, as with a Grateful Dead concert, one might appreciate Hair more, and this intimate production in particular, if one were tripping on one of the drugs the Tribe loudly lists early in Act I. It’s a hypothesis I’m not planning to test at this point in life, though.
In any case, Hair isn’t very satisfying as musical theater, but in the Secret Theatre’s production it has all the flower power of the Be-In that gathers its motley and beautifully costumed Tribe in protest at the door of the Army’s “abduction center.” It gets its narrative act somewhat together in Act II. It leaves a strong impression that one has been to an “event.” And despite my reservations about the show itself, for the most part I had a darn good time.