by Joel Elkins~
For a while during the late 70′s, the Broadway soundtrack of Hair was rarely far from my tape deck, and, to this day, the film version of the musical is one of the few movies I own (on VHS tape, of course). But I had never seen it on stage and was therefore eager to take in a local performance at the El Centro Theatre by the aptly named Tribe Productions company (the cast of Hair is traditionally referred to as “the tribe”). Perhaps my expectations were a bit high, but what I got was a very good high school production, highly enjoyable but something that could never be confused for Broadway.
For the uninitiated, the musical takes place in New York City in 1967, during the height of the hippie movement, with all that entailed: free love, anti-war, long hair, flowers, beads, cosmic consciousness, and self-realization through meditation and drugs. It was written contemporaneously by James Rado and Gerome Ragni (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music) and was revolutionary for a number of reasons. It was one of the first rock operas, paving the way for Jesus Christ Superstar, The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, among others. It gave an air of legitimacy to the Hippie counter-culture. And it ruffled a few feathers, with its raw language, stark themes, simulated sex and on-stage nudity. In fact, much of the play appears to be designed specifically to disconcert and unnerve the audience. For example, one song (“Sodomy”) consists only of sexual terms, another (“Hashish”) merely lists types of drugs, from LSD to shoe polish, while a third (“Colored Spade”) simply rattles off derogatory names and stereotypes of African Americans.
The apparent message of this in-your-face, over-the-top crassness is that these are only words, and if they are being spoken (and used and performed) in private, there is no harm – but, in fact, benefit – to voicing them in public and removing their sting. Now, forty-five years later, thanks to this movement, audiences are much more accustomed to this rawness. When my parents saw a production of Hair in the seventies, my mother couldn’t remember a thing about the production, too traumatized by a naked man landing in her lap. Today, that sort of thing gets a giggle, not a gasp.
But, despite its less acute shock value, Hair still holds up as a musical. The songs are catchy, and the themes (personal freedom, prejudice, war) are still relevant today, albeit it different contexts. It doesn’t take too much imagination to draw modern day parallels to the anti-Vietnam protests (“white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people”) or the “blacks and whites should be allowed to marry” graffiti scrawled on the walls of the set.
The play, true to its theme, is open structure, sacrificing a strict plot line for creativity and free expression. Director Christopher Chase takes advantage of this opportunity. As the audience takes their seats, they are greeted with the unmistakable smell of pot, as hippies on-stage and off smoke, space out, mingle with each other and audience members and generally do their own thing. This continues during the intermission also, with casts members roaming the theater looking for drugs, a handout, or simply a good time. During the play, there are additional periods of audience interaction during Act One, as well as an original one-minute addition to Claude’s drug trip during Act Two, in which he sees into 1973 and the futures of some of the characters.
While this creativity is crowd-pleasing, and rightfully so, the heart and soul of the musical – the musical numbers – suffered for two differing reasons. The cast members can all carry a tune but don’t have the show-stopping voices needed for the play’s dramatic solos. The primary exception is Christopher Chase in the lead role of Claude, who has a strong polished voice and angelic smile. The rest of the cast all shared his energy and youthful enthusiasm, but simply couldn’t compete vocally.
The full-cast numbers were a whole other story, where the cast nailed the strong harmonies and syncopation. But cast members were often insecure with the complicated choreography, having to look to the sides to make sure where their colleagues were. The very clever staging for one musical number (“Initials”), for example, was done in by poor execution. In addition, the tight confines of the El Centro’s small (even by equity-waiver standards) stage, seemed to hinder them from fully stretching their wings during the play’s many frenetic group numbers. During the play’s run, much of these wrinkles will surely get ironed out, in time for this year’s Fringe Festival, where it is playing no less than twelve times.
The set design by Chase and Sammi Wallschlaeger consists of graffiti-covered walls and benches. The live band is purposely placed behind the stage, out of view, and piped in through speakers in order to give the music a gritty recorded sound. Linda Gomez and Chase’s costume design makes sure to authentically mimic the hippie apparel of the time and place, rather than using stereotypical but anachronistic tie-dyes.
Clearly, much research, thought and energy went into this production and it shows up on stage. But, in the end, it couldn’t escape being what it is: a good amateur production.
Hair will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 6 pm through June 24l, 2012.
The El Centro Theater is located at 800 N. El Centro Ave. in Hollywood (one block east of Vine between Melrose and Santa Monica).
Ticket prices: $40.00 (Seniors, Students, Teachers: $30.00)