Glorious voices tackling classic Broadway/'60s rock standards would have been more than enough for a satisfactorily entertaining evening.
That the cast and crew of the Lower Ossington Theatre turn a period piece and some great music, into an emotionally moving contemporary commentary is an achievement.
Hair dates from way back in 1967, long before any of this cast were even gleams in their parents' eyes, but, sadly, what it rails against is still shockingly relevant. When Mark Willett as Woof sings,
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
the words still sound, if not nasty, unusual and disturbing in a musical theatre context. And everyone in the theatre squirms, just as the original lyricists planned, when the fine-voiced and handsome Wesley Tysdale bites into:
I'm a coloured spade, a nigger, a black nigger
A jungle bunny, Jigaboo coon, pickaninny mau mau
Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo
Cotton pickin' swamp guinea
Junk man, shoeshine boy, elevator operator
Table cleaner at Horn and Hardart
Slave voodoo, zombie, Ubangi lipped
Flat nose, tap dancin' resident of Harlem
All these decades later some things haven't changed. The points are obvious if deftly drawn, but in the second half director Alan Kinsella draws some direct and powerful parallels to the present. The book of Hair is not as memorable or coherent as the songs, but this Hair makes the drug hallucinations a driving narrative and the finale of "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)" a horrified lament transformed into a showstopping curtain eleven o'clock number.
The young and enthusiastic cast perfectly embodies Hair's main themes: "What a Piece of Work is Man" and "Make love not war." This Hair baldly shows that these vibrant voices and beautiful bodies should not be sacrificed to greed and violence or whatever motivates the conflicts in Gaza, Syria, Libya, the Ukraine, etc, etc. The infamous nude scene makes perfect sense (beyond selling titillation tickets) in this context: the human body is exquisite in all its variations and also vulnerable. It is a very powerful statement.
The first half is more uneven but it appears to be more the sonic limitations of the Randolph Theatre than the cast or conception. Erik Kopacsi as Berger suffers the most when his opening numbers, where he should get to establish himself as a delicious force of sexual energy and anarchy, are almost inaudible and buried in the admittedly luscious chorus. It is a shame because Berger's penchant for nudity and/or shirtlessness suits Kopacsi and, when he gets a chance to be heard, his vocals are clear and strong. But the damage is done, despite Kopacsi's best efforts, Berger comes across as childish and sexually puerile rather than sexual. A Broadway version of Hair made Steel Burkhardt a star, it's a shame that Kopacsi doesn't get the same chance.
The neutering of Berger unbalances the show, leaving Claude as the dominant character. Carter Easler's strong voice and matinee-idol chest make for a compelling Claude, and he provides an fittingly devastating finale.
Willett remains one of LOT's secret weapons (Next to Normal, Avenue Q, Shrek, Little Shop of Horrors) and he is so appealing and fine-voiced as Woof, that the questionable '60s sexual politics are glossed over. Woof might be gay or bisexual - and to this production's credit there is a lot of casual pansexual eroticism in the choreography and staging - but, aside from a blatant crush on Berger, Hair is coy. Willett does cross dress and has the funniest and perhaps the most touching moments with his Margaret Mead character and the song "My Conviction."
You know kids, I wish every mom and dad would make a speech to their teenagers and say kids, be free, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don't hurt anybody. And remember kids, I am your friend.
I would just like to say that it is my conviction
That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
Of appearance are nothing more
Than the male's emergence from his drab camouflage
Into the gaudy plumage
Which is the birthright of his sex
There is a peculiar notion that elegant plumage
And fine feathers are not proper for the male
That is the way things are
In most species
This is where Hair appears to be the most dated. Aside from the questionable cross-dressing/trans reveal, the women, who have some of the best songs and voices, are treated completely as secondary characters. Even though Sheila, a remarkable-voiced Sara Wilkinson, is the only proactive - inept but well-meaning - character, she is peripheral to the bromances that forms the backbone of Hair. All of the women in this production shine - special vocal kudos to Andria Crabbe and Qwyn Charter for raising the roof - and their treatment by the era and script should be as shocking as the other repressive sexual attitudes, racism and the continuation of the war machine.
There are many little touches and flourishes that distinguish this production - acoustic guitars linking protest-folk to rock n' roll - and only a few missteps where the performers and choreography become incongruent with the makeshift hippy aesthetic, they are just too accomplished for a ragtag band of urchins.
A musical's main motivation is to entertain and this Hair does so admirably. Give it extra points for dragging a period piece into the present and reminding us of "What a Piece of Work is Man."