Dallas — Fifty years ago, on Oct. 17, 1967, a scruffy little musical titled Hair opened at the only theater in town that would have them, The Public Theater, which was founded by Joseph Papp, who had already started the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was created by two actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado (book and lyrics), who persuaded composer Galt MacDermot to join them.
Hair was the first non-Shakespearean offering at Papp’s theater. After revisions, the musical moved to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in April 1968 where it ran for 1,750 performances. The original production’s show album won a Grammy; the 2009 revival won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
Hair was unconventional, unruly, irreverent, risqué, and a little unpredictable—perfectly representative of the late 1960s in America.
This Dallas Theater Center’s current production of Hair is happening during the 50th anniversary of the original performance. Director Kevin Moriarty has designed an immersive experience for audiences that allows for interaction with the actors and the set; a concept well-suited for this show and the Wyly space.
Jo Winiarski’s playful scenic arena design incorporates multimedia and symbology from the period. A pit for the band has been fashioned in the center of the space. It is around this pit that the cast comes together occasionally, forming a sort of talking or peace circle of togetherness. Audiences are strongly urged to arrive early to select seating (in a variety of chairs, sofas and seats that are not the Wyly’s lime green seats) in one of the four areas that surround the playing space and pit: The Kitchen, The Lounge, The Garden or The Playground, complete with giant slide that the actors use several times, most effectively as army personnel are parachuting from a plane. (See the seating chart at the bottom of this review.)
The original concept of Hair was highly improvisatory, something Moriarty has moderately embraced in this DTC production. Each night, an individual that is not a member of the cast is invited to become a participant in a particular scene. One such moment during Act II of the performance reviewed featured one of the musicians, bassist KJ Gray (also brother of piano conductor, Kwinton Gray). His task was to improvise a scene about what happened to Claude. Gray sang a rendition of the national anthem that literally brought the audience to its feet. It became one of the most notable performances of the evening.
Also, in the song “Good Morning Starshine,” the soloist is chosen at random by Sheila (Tiana Kaye Johnson) in the middle of the song. It should also be noted that there is some audience participation, but it’s harmless and in the spirit of the musical's original concept.
It is timely that Hair is onstage during this period in America, and uncanny that it coincided with the broadcast period of Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War on PBS. Hair deals with racism, the antiwar movement toward the unpopular war in Vietnam, poverty, political corruption, pollution and environmental concerns, sexism and violence toward young people on college campuses. America again finds itself grappling with the same issues in the 21st century.
While the show is a little complicated, the premise is simple. Claude Bukowski (Jaime Cepero) has left Queens for Manhattan, where he plans to enlist in the Army for the Vietnam war. He is befriended by The Tribe, a group of free-spirited young people that hang out in Central Park. They describe themselves as the children of the Age of Aquarius. They are against the Vietnam war and the men among them are burning their draft cards. Claude has to decide whether to stay with them, or follow through with his plans to enlist, fully aware that he might be killed.
For this production, there are nine principals: Dionne (Ayanna Edwards) sings the female lead in the first song “Aquarius.” George Berger (Chris Peluso), whom the group calls Berger, is the most vocal and irreverent tribal member. Sheila (Johnson) is a political activist who is also in a frustrating relationship with Berger which motivates her song “Easy to Be Hard.” Woof (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez) grows things that the tribe can dry, roll and smoke, hence the song “Hashish.”
Hud (Ace Anderson) is a defiant African-American male challenging racial norms in “Colored Spade.” Jeanie (Kia Nicole Boyer) is an environmentalist and at one point dons a gas mask in protest of air pollution. Jeanie is in love with Claude. She is also pregnant, but not by Claude. Everything is complicated within the tribe. Crissy (Monique Abry) is the naïve one who met a boy on the street, gave him money, and believed him when he said he would meet her later. She is looking for him as she sings “Frank Mills.”
Hair is a high-energy musical that moves so fast that audiences might not realize there are more than 30 songs. Musical director Vonda K. Bowling and choreographer Ann Yee have fused efforts that accommodate the physicality demanded from the actors, without compromising their ability to produce good tones. The band, conducted by Kwinton Gray, brings a tight, contemporary feel to the score, edging but not abandoning the period spirit of the music. “Hare Krishna” and “What a Piece of Work is Man” are particularly strong.
Sometimes nudity is gratuitous but in Hair, it is not. The first act closing number (“Where Do I Go”) is powerful, organic and truly beautiful. Yee’s choreography is winsome, like a painting in motion.
In the push-and-pull between the two male leads, Claude is the conscience of the piece while Berger is temptation. Cepero delivers so such compelling work in this production that when he is not onstage, his absence is felt. Peluso keeps Berger lovable even when he is not. Joey Donovan is funny and endearing as the tourist lady, Margaret Mead. “My Conviction” is one of the most delightful numbers of the show. You can’t have a successful Hair without an ensemble of performers committing to being in the moment, and here they go above and beyond.
The production values in Hair excel, except for sound. On opening night, the actors pushed through and made it work but the issues with sound balance cannot be ignored. Full immersion demands well-balanced sound. Too many voices were drowned when soloists were amid the band.
Otherwise, the detailed costumes (Karen Perry), hair/wigs/makeup (J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova) and lighting (Seth Reiser) take the audience to the time of flower children and peace signs, beads and seeds.
Moriarty, who is in his 10th season as Artistic Director of the organization that just won the Regional Theatre Tony Award, promised to “provide an immersive experience for the audience to express themselves through art and let the sunshine in from their seats.”
He and his team make good on that promise, confirming that Hair is as relevant and important as it was 50 years ago.
» The house opens 30 minutes before curtain, and the actors are already onstage having a "Happening," which means interacting with the arriving audience. Get there at least 45 minutes early to find a good seat, and feel free to draw on the floor and on the cardboard on the walls of the Potter Rose Performance Hall.