Sixties Throwback 'Hair' Reanimates Hippie Spirit

Newly relevant, the '60s play exhibits youthful passion

Forty-five years since its initial debut, the age of Aquarius dawned once more this weekend. That vivid bygone era—a time of easy drugs and hard moral choices, of love that comes free and liberty that comes at excruciating cost—took center stage at the Loeb Ex in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s exuberant production of “Hair.”

It is hard to overstate how shocking “Hair” must have seemed to its first audience in 1967. Opposition to the Vietnam War was only just beginning to gain a foothold in mainstream opinion, and hippie culture wasn’t history; it was happening. The musical depicts copious use of mind-altering drugs, breezy willingness to form sexual liaisons at the merest suggestion, and youthful irreverence toward conventional religious, educational, and parental authority. To see all of that, buoyantly set to rock music, must have been astonishing for Broadway audiences—even before the now-famous nude scene that ends the first act. (In the HRDC’s production, the lights were dimmed so that viewers could see that the actors were stripping and not much else.)

The modern resonance of the 45-year-old musical rang out in the HRDC’s rendition. “Hair”—which ran from April 26 to April 29—is a tale of young people, angry at the policies enacted in their nation’s capital and terrified of the consequences for their own lives, who take their frustration and fear, in all its earnestness and messiness and bitterness and hope, to the streets of New York. In the days of Occupy, the political undertones of this musical seem highly relevant once more, providing ample fodder for a boundlessly energetic cast to reanimate this cultural touchstone.

Director Katherine L. Price ’14 took pains to make sure that her modern audience felt as close to the hippies of “Hair” as possible, metaphorically and literally. Actors repeatedly leaped into the risers to tousle audience members’ locks, sit on their laps, or stroke them suggestively.

The young characters of “Hair” call themselves “the Tribe,” and Price’s staging emphasized the cohesiveness of this cohort. The actors, who spent the bulk of the show lounging in couples and occasional threesomes, gathered together at moments of heightened emotion to form a close pack of ardent activists. To reinforce the communal spirit of the show, Price even chose to forgo listing actors’ roles in the program, opting for an alphabetical list of cast members instead.

In a show so intensely focused on its ensemble, every actor must work to make the Tribe believable. The cast of “Hair” answered this challenge with aplomb. Springing through back-to-back musical numbers, the cast offered all the bouncing-off-the-walls energy, loosely coordinated but not precisely polished group dancing, beatific smiles, and wanton tosses of unrestrained hair that one might expect from a group of close friends with several powerful drugs in their systems.

In this spirited cast, Mark J. Mauriello ’15 stood out as the starry-eyed, impetuous high school dropout George Berger. He was supremely comfortable teasing audience members, spouting drug-fueled revelations, and belting out songs. In many of those numbers, he interacted touchingly with his friend Claude Bukowski (Phil M. Gillen ’13), whose torment over whether to burn his draft card or head off to Vietnam formed the play’s emotional core. Though Gillen seemed to struggle with the vocal requirements of the leading role, he stayed in character nonstop to give a moving and memorable performance as the cocky but conflicted young man.

Brianne Holland-Stergar ’13 offered some touching moments as Jeannie, who professes her love for Claude although she has been “knocked up by some crazy speed freak.” Many cast members—notably Kimberly A. Onah ’15 as Sheila, Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15 as Dionne, and Talia M. Fox ’13 as Crissy—provided the strong vocals necessary for a show so stuffed with music. Missed microphone cues meant that the opening lines of several songs were muffled, but actors and crew usually recovered quickly. The brassy accompaniment of the student band bolstered the upbeat tone of the show.

Set designers Madelynne A. Hays ’13 and Isabel Strauss ’13 nicely captured both the colorful mentality and the gritty reality of the Tribe’s lifestyle, with whimsical printed cloths draped over cardboard boxes and a vibrant sunrise painted on black-and-white anti-war posters. The hallmark of the multi-level set was a staircase painted like an American flag that lit up at key moments of the show. Rossi L. Walter ’14, Elisabeth A. Meyer ’15, and Aaron S. Graham-Horowitz ’15—who designed the show’s lighting—used color to great effect, especially during a hallucinogen trip depicted through shifting hues and a long dance by strobe light.

Faced with his summons to fight in Vietnam, Claude says plaintively, “I just want to be over here doing the things they’re over there defending.” By energetically depicting both the hippie movement’s gleeful abandon and its painful link to global tragedy, the cast of “Hair” presented a complex, compelling view of a tumultuous age. This production, perhaps, is a response to the anguished question that the Tribe found unanswerable when they received their draft cards: Crying out from their amorous hangout, they asked of an unresponsive government, “How dare they try to end this beauty?” “Hair” replied this weekend that, long after the devastating war has passed, the undimmed remnants of that unconventional beauty can still thrive onstage.

—Staff writer Julie M. Zauzmer can be reached at jzauzmer@college.harvard.edu.

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