Chicago Theatre Review
An Exuberantly Defiant Summer of Love
Hair – Mercury Theatre
Wow! Has it been 50 years since that first summer of love? Well, once again the moon’s in the seventh house, Jupiter’s aligning with Mars and it’s the Age of Aquarius. Brenda Didier’s exciting new, almost intimate production recalls those bygone days of tie-dye, bell-bottoms and Native American-inspired duds (authentically recreated by Robert Kuhn, with wigs and hair design by Kevin Barthel). The show depicts a tribe of young, long-haired Manhattan hippies and flower children who, during the turbulent 1960’s, protest everything from the military draft, violence, the Vietnam War, environmental destruction, racism, bigotry, sexual repression and the illegality of mind-expanding drugs. This is the show that launched the birth of the rock musical, the concept play (like “Follies”), audience participation, racial equality, onstage nudity and, with a score of over 35 songs, more hit tunes than any other.
Didier’s passionately poetic production dazzles and moves the audience in the way that a finely produced musical should. Thanks to savvy and insightful casting, and skillful musical direction by Eugene Dizon, this show features a cast of some of Chicago’s finest singers. Moments that truly hit home include lovely Cherise Thomas as Dionne, inviting the tribe onto the stage with her dynamic opening number, “Aquarius.” Terrific actor/singer Michelle Lauto, fresh from her long run in “Spamilton,” so incredibly moving as Sheila, beginning with her joyfully optimistic, “I Believe in Love,” followed by her poignant “Easy to Be Hard” and concluding with a hopeful “Good Morning Starshine.” Everything performed by the infectiously joyous Lucy Godinez, playing the unwed and pregnant young Jeanie, particularly her sarcastic anthem to pollution, “The Air,” is wonderful. Terrifically multitalented Leryn Turlington is absolute perfection as the innocent, young Crissy, who paints a beautifully touching story of young love in “Frank Mills.”
As the two protagonists, Matthew Keffer’s Berger and Liam Quealy’s Claude are outstanding. Each actor is peerless, both individually and as company members. Both bring charisma, powerful, well-trained voices and boundless energy to their demanding roles. It’s evident in every musical number. Keffer charms the audience with songs like “Donna” and “Going Down;” Quealy caresses such songs as “I Got Life” and the plaintive “Where Do I Go;” and the two actors share the show’s title song with humor, energy and eloquence.
As a true ensemble show, praise must be spread among every single member of Didier’s splendidly talented cast, in particular the splendid Evan Tyrone Martin, as Hud, an enthusiastic and very funny Aaron M. Davison as Woof, and the scene-stealing Craig Underwood as Margaret Meade. The ensemble also includes talented Caleb Baze, Chuckie Benson, Candace C. Edwards, Andrew Lund, Miciah Long, Mallory Maedke and Marco Tzunux, each a star in his or her own right. Eugene Dizon’s brilliant musical direction and his guidance of the 6-member, backstage rock combo help create the authentic period sound of this show. And ultimately, Brenda Didier drives the show’s anti-war message home in the most heartbreaking final moments of any production in memory, leaving audiences craving to “Let the Sunshine In.”
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 is noteworthy in that it featured the first truly integrated Broadway cast, as does Mercury Theater’s production. But those familiar with the 1968 Broadway production, or even the more recent
2009 Tony Award-winning revival, will find some fresh surprises in this version.
For those unfamiliar with this musical, 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 seamlessly between moments of confession and exposition. Through the music, audiences learn that Claude, a young man terrified of the ongoing War, is considering burning his draft card in response. Other characters share their personal feelings musically, as well. Besides being somewhat disjointed, the show spends a disproportionate amount of Act II exploring the varied effects of Claude’s drug-induced hallucination through several numbers, including “Walking in Space.”
But the real strength behind this production is Brenda Didier’s faithfully created, intense camaraderie that the script demands. Creatively choreographed by Chris Carter, Ms. Didier has sensitively guided her actors, creating a tribe, a real family, each of whom clearly and lovingly cares for and supports one another. This is displayed visually through trust falls and several aero-ballet moves, wherein actors seem to fly through space, all because each performer believes in his cast mates being there. The close proximity to the action brings an immediacy to situations that many audience members may never have experienced. This production will be long counted among Mercury Theater’s finest, in a long line of great shows. It’s a heartfelt celebration of love, friendship and exuberant defiance that won’t soon be forgotten.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 27-September 24 by Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-325-1700 or by going to www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.