Political protests. Racial and socioeconomic inequality. A deep generational divide. Controversy over a long-term, unpopular war.
We could be living in the ‘60s. Even bell-bottoms and tie-dye are back (though, thankfully, not the draft).
No show embodied the adolescent angst and malaise of that era more than “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” which premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 1967, opened on Broadway in 1968, and ran for 1,750 performances.
Over the years, if has been difficult, for various reasons, for local theaters to capture the specific sensibility of that age.
But The Old Globe’s new production, under the astute and assured direction of Globe resident artist James Vasquez (abetted by a formidable collaboration with choreographer Mayte Natalio), is spot-on.
The glorification of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is there.
The ragtag, fringe- and vest-heavy clothes are there (thanks to costume designer David Israel Reynoso, whose only misstep is a surprisingly wrinkled, nondescript and decidedly not American military uniform; a friend thought it looked Cuban!).
It was all very familiar to me. I actually had quite a number of those clothing items in my own wardrobe. I also knew someone who was in the original cast, which gave me an insider’s view of how the show evolved — including the fact that one cast member got pregnant during rehearsals, so the creators (book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado; music by Galt MacDermot) wrote that into the script, where it has remained ever since. And when the original actor gave birth, the whole cast was there to watch and to welcome the new baby in song (“Let the Sunshine In”).
Some changes have been made to the original version, presumably to avoid offending folks, though if you’re easily offended, this may not be the show for you. But in respect to certain racial and sexual identity issues/sensitivities, the songs “Black Boys” and “White Boys” were eliminated, as was the cross-dressing reveal of “My Conviction,” among other tweaks.
Still, the profusion of F-bombs and the full-cast, full-frontal nudity are there (the latter upstage, backlit and in very dim light). And the still-potent, angry race number, “Colored Spade,” remains.
If you can embrace the mindset — and the drug-addled head-trip of that time of mixed-up, joyful hippie counterculture and sexual revolution, a time of political activism and personal torpor, of terrible anxiety and apprehension of young people being forced to go to war (or burn their draft cards or escape to Canada) — you’re gonna love this production.
The voices and harmonies are superb; the 8-piece band is terrific (music direction by Angela Steiner). And there seems to be a genuine feeling of camaraderie and community among the ebullient, outstanding cast.
Because community is what it’s all about. Something we’ve all been lacking and craving, for the past 18 months. We’ve all tried many ways to fill the gaps and substitute other means of ‘getting together.’ But nothing feels more like uniting — in one place, at one time, to enjoy one particular thing — like theater.
The Globe is making a splash of a comeback — safely, outdoors.
It’s hard not to fall for these wild and crazy kids (one is expelled from high school), who drift into the audience at times, with flowers or flyers or general goodwill.
At the center of The Tribe, there’s a romantically intertwined trio: belligerent, over-sexed Berger (irresistible Andrew Polec); deeply conflicted Claude (appealing, endearing Tyler Hardwick); and activist Sheila (powerhouse Storm Lever, who has made memorable appearances in three prior high-profile San Diego productions: “Almost Famous” at the Globe and, at the La Jolla Playhouse, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Fly”).
Then there’s hunky Hud (Alex Joseph Grayson); pregnant Jeanie (Jaygee Macapugay), peaceable Woof (Angel Lozada); eccentric Crissy (Bailey Day Sonner), who does a great job with the aching song of loss, “Frank Mills”); and big-voiced Dionne (Nyla Sostre), who kicks it all off with “Aquarius.” The total ensemble features 16 performers, two of whom (Luke H. Jacobs, Bethany Slomka) are locals.
It’s a highly talented, multi-cultural cast (true of the original, too), that conveys more of a mindset than a story, in some 40 songs.
There isn’t much narrative or dialogue, but Claude’s ambivalence about the war — and his extended, drug-induced hallucination in Act 2, ingeniously conveyed with huge, puppet-heads — becomes the through-line. However, his ending (and the show’s) is murky and unsatisfying.
The lighting (Amanda Zieve) is exuberant, but the sound (Ken Travis) is variable. The solo numbers come through crisp and clear, but when the ensemble sings, the miking often makes it difficult to discern the words.
The late ‘60s was the best and worst of times. Seeing the show again made me long for those times — when you could tell at a glance, by how people dressed and acted and wore their hair, which ‘side’ they were on in terms of multiple critical issues (drugs, the war, music, etc.). To be young at that time, was to feel a part of something vital, personal and electrifying. We truly believed in the power of peace and love — until the 1969 violence of Altamont and Manson made it all come tumbling down
But oh, how glorious to reminisce for two hours, under the stars.
Treat yourself, transport yourself, and revisit the brief, golden Age of Aquarius.
- “Hair, The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” runs outdoors, on the Festival Stage at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, from Aug. 10 to Oct. 3
- Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Performance times vary as the summer wanes.
- Tickets (Starting at $37) are available at 619-234-5623 or TheOldGlobe.org
- Running time: 2 hrs. 10 min (including intermission)
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.