Chicago Theatre Review
A Flash from the Past
Hair – American Theatre Company
Motivated by their popular, critically successful production of “The Original ‘Grease’”ATC’s decision to conclude their 29th season with a re-imagined version of the original “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” was an obvious choice. James Rado and Gerome Ragni’s book and lyrics, set to Galt MacDermot’s pulsating score, broke new ground as the first Rock Opera. Light on plot but heavy on ideas, “Hair” also became the first concept musical, presenting controversial anti-war sentiments, being pro-drug/hippie culture and sexual revolution and becoming the first truly integrated Broadway cast.
Those familiar with the 1968 Broadway production or even the recent 2009 Tony Award-winning revival will find surprises in PJ Paparelli’s new vision. Working closely with “Hair” co-creator, James Rado, Paparelli shaped and remolded the familiar script, including original lyrics and orchestrations from the initial 1967 Off-Broadway version. Set in an old, abandoned warehouse, this is the story of Claude, a romantic young filmmaker who, like his tribal friends Berger, Sheila, Hud, Woof, Jeanie and Crissy, despises America’s military involvement in Viet Nam. The play begins at a be-in, a recreational drug-laced spiritual gathering, seasoned with incense and free love, and told through songs that jump effortlessly between episodes of confession and exposition. Through songs like the title song, “I Got Life” and “Where Do I Go?” audiences learn that Claude, a young man terrified of the ongoing War, is questioning his response to being drafted. Other characters share their feelings musically, such as Crissy’s wonderful “Frank Mills,” Sheila’s “I Believe in Love” and “Easy to Be Hard” and Berger’s “Donna” and “Going Down.” Besides being somewhat disjointed, the musical spends a disproportionate amount of Act II exploring the varied effects of Claude’s drug-induced hallucination (“Walking in Space,” “Good Morning Starshine”).
The real strength behind this production is Paparelli’s faithfully created, intense tribal camaraderie that the script dictates. The close proximity to much of the action brings an immediacy to situations many audience members may never have experienced first-hand. Zach Kenney truly leads this cast as a multi-dimensional, charismatic Claude. He’s contrasted by Sky Seals as a loud, bombastic Berger. Mary Hollis Inboden is comical and affecting as Jeanie. Other highlights include the show’s high-powered opening number, “Aquarius,” led by Camille Robinson’s Dionne, as well as well as the tribal trio “Black Boys/White Boys.” Woof, the talented singer/dancer Christian Libonati, leads the company in a rousingly religious “Sodomy,” and Jane Strauss‘ prim and proper Margaret Mead provides hilarity with her operatic “My Conviction.”
On the downside, the production feels a little long-winded, especially during a second act that wears out its welcome long before its conclusion. Partly because the band sometimes overpowers the singers and partly due to the theatre’s uncomfortable, cramped seating arrangement, the production becomes tedious.
On the upside, Mikey Rioux’s choreography is terrific, as are Brittany Dee Bodley’s costumes that truly resemble clothing worn during the late ’60’s, rather flashy hippie garb fashioned for the stage. This cast earnestly conveys the feeling of community, present in everything they say or do. While this group of young performers may only be drawing from their own research of the era they’ve captured the immediacy and reality of that time as a flash from the past.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 5-June 29 by the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by visiting or calling the box office at 773-409-4125, or by going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.