Matthew Reddin

The Surprising Relevance of Hair

Skylight’s powerful production of 1968 hippie musical makes it seem anything but dated.

By - May 21st, 2014 11:54 am


I’m not the obvious choice to review Hair.

I’m way too young to have appreciated the 1968 Broadway premiere or 1979 movie. Tie-dye’s the sort of thing I wore to elementary school dress-up days. Even my parents are young enough that they only knew Hair from the singles that made it to radio, and my memories of it coming on the classic rock stations that permeated our family minivan are tinged with amusement about its ideals of radicalism and revolution.

But seeing the Skylight’s production, which closes the inaugural season of artistic director Viswa Subbaraman, I’m starting to rethink the assumption this musical is a simply a period piece. Don’t get me wrong: It’s very much of the period in the Skylight’s staging, which is both a strength and a weakness. But the cast excels in embracing that period, embodying it to the fullest, and letting it be both a snapshot of an era and a mirror into our own.

Hair. Photo courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre.

Hair. Photo courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre.

Hair is deceptively easy to describe. One of the first concept musicals as well as one of the first to utilize a rock ’n’ roll infused score, it follows a tribe of hippie youths living slightly off the grid in a loose Bohemian/free love collective. The show opens with a broad sequence of interlocked musical numbers that seem meant only to evoke the general vibe of the time period, but as the musical increasingly focuses in on individuals within the tribe – de facto leader Berger (Alex Mace), the self-appointedly messianic Claude (Doug Clemons), their protesting collegiate ally Sheila (Alison Mary Forbes), to name a few – it begins to solidify around Claude’s journey of self-discovery, sparked by his impending draft date.

One of the funny things about theater is that the questions you think it asks are often those you bring to the table yourself. Hair exemplifies this idea better than many plays, as the majority of its second act is a grandiose hallucination that dredges up all sorts of subconscious queries from Claude’s mind, and in its disjointed narrative, which sometimes seems both for and against issues at the same time.

So it’s the moments of Hair where the free-love, utopian nature of the tribe is placed in jeopardy where I see the Skylight’s cast shine most gloriously, as it’s impossible to watch Hair nearly 50 years later without knowing their dreams of peace and love won’t be realized, or without seeing the way they’re hiding behind their ideals to disguise their own shortcomings. Every word out of Berger’s mouth feels like posturing, as Mace wisely plays him somewhere between a charismatic cult leader and a terrified teen who has no idea what he’s doing but knows how to fake it. A fight between Sheila and Berger that ends with Forbes singing a heart-wrenching elegy about cruelty chips away at the image of the tribe as a classless, loving society. And while Claude’s story can end in no way but tragedy, Clemons gets more mileage out of his early self-delusion and indecisiveness when seen through the eyes of a 2014 audience.

Hair. Photo courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre.

Hair. Photo courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre.

But Hair isn’t just an excellent production in the sepia-toned lens of hindsight. Keeping us attached in the there and then instead of the here and now are the tribe’s secondary characters – characters who call to mind issues of race, like the militant Hud (Sherrick Robinson) and vivacious Dionne (Raven Dockery), or the simple, light-hearted lifestyle of these flower children, like drug-dazed Woof (Ryan Cappleman) or idealistic Crissy (Katherine Duffy). Their moments in the spotlight often provide breaks from the main action that point out specific social issues the tribe stands against, like racial discrimination and sexual repression.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this production of Hair is how little it’s like the infamously scandalous production it’s imagined to be. It’s certainly packed with moments designed to startle, both in 1968 and still today. But stage director Ray Jivoff and music director Subbaraman are able to let the sun shine more on the complexities of this show than its simplistic shock value, and Hair’s all the better for it.

Hair runs through June 8 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65 and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight box office.


PREVIEW: Phaedra’s Love by The World’s Stage Theater Company

The ancient Greek tragedy of Phaedra isn’t one that’s retold often, being about a woman who falls in love with her stepson. But British playwright Sarah Kane isn’t one to shy away from the controversial, being an author of a number of brutally violent and sexualized dramas, including this one: Phaedra’s Love. Leda Hoffmann will direct this first production of a Kane drama in Milwaukee for World’s Stage, giving the play a treatment that emphasizes the themes of love, faith, depression and humanity that are a part of this overtly shocking production.

Phaedra’s Love opens May 23 and runs through May 31 at Grand Avenue Mall, with all performances at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15, $12 for students, and can be purchased online at The World’s Stage’s box office.



Off the Wall: Giovanni, through May 25



Milwaukee Opera Theatre: Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, EXTENDED through May 31

Skylight Music Theatre: I Hear America Singing, through June 1; Hair, through June 8

First Stage: Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever, through June 1

Fireside Theater: Fiddler on the Roof, through June 8

0 thoughts on “Theater: The Surprising Relevance of Hair

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hippies as the subject of a musical? That in itself was innovative (in its time), and of course Hair is relevant, as the late 60s and early 70s were relevant and politically, socially and personally invigorating and re-energizing society from the staid and suffering status quo to the dawning of the Age Of Aquarius.

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