Fifty years is a fruitful passage of time to consider what the social and political revolution depicted in the hit Broadway musical “Hair” has meant to audiences around the world and how it can be interpreted through the lens of our current climate. Asolo Repertory Theatre’s decision to stage such a politically charged and emotionally wrenching musical during a time of civil strife was bold and exhilarating. “Age of Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sunshine In” are some of the best songs in the American songbook exemplifying all the hopes and dreams of a new generation who were ready to take on the world.
“Hair” is a product of its times and in this current iteration, the show was grounded for a little over a week when COVID hit the cast. More than a year ago in April 2020, we reached a grim milestone when more people died from COVID in the US than during the Vietnam War, and “Hair” is largely about a tribe coming to grips with one of their own, Claude, getting drafted to Vietnam. Although the tribe are also concerned with discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation, the main focus of “Hair” is the overwhelming fear, dread, and disgust that they felt about our country’s participation in what they considered to be an unjust war. The Asolo is no stranger to this discussion having previously staged “All the Way” and “The Great Society” in previous seasons about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s struggles with our country’s participation in the war, so it was refreshing to see the other side of the equation, the young people sent to an unknown land based solely on their birthdate and bad luck.
When you enter the theater, the cast has begun interacting with one another and the audience. A huge third eye at the top stage sets the mood, and a leader of the tribe named Berger (Kaleb Wells) careens down the rainbow slide at the center of the stage espousing his love of transcendental meditation. This line was greeted by a few laughs, but I was struck by the extent to which mindful meditation has been mainstreamed as a part of the $4.2 trillion wellness industry. Perhaps people are less likely to refer to the practice as transcendental, but there is no question that the tribe depicted in “Hair” were decades ahead in ascribing to the value of meditation.
During the entire ninety minutes of the play’s run, Claude (Damon Gillespie) is confronted by the moral quandary between reporting for military conscription and staying true to the anti-war ideals of his friends who regularly gather in Washington Square Park to talk politics and partake of drugs and sex. Gillespie has a lovely voice and a great deal of energy that he brings to the performance. It’s not clear whether it is the limitations of the script (which was cut by nearly an hour from the original production) or the performance, but despite the moving moment when he came face to face with a Vietcong soldier offering a bouquet of flowers, he did not take the audience on a journey through Claude’s interior life. A deep connection with Claude would have taken this production from a happening to an awakening.
Claude’s friends are an intriguing band of merry misfits. Berger, with his long flowing hair is a flamboyant playboy. Spirited Woof’s (Jonathan Fleites) sweet voice and melancholy air made them a stand-out among the cast. Jeanie (Becca Andrews) often functioned as the narrator explaining the musical chairs of love interests among the tribe to the audience. She claimed to be in love with Claude, but there did not appear to be any affection between them, and she seemed rather indifferent to his plight. Crissy performed one of the most compelling songs of the show “Frank Mills,” and she seemed to have the most genuinely at stake in the group in her quest to find a man she met previously. Finally, Sheila brought down the house in her introductory number “I Believe in Love,” and she was the character about whom I most wanted to learn – much like Gloria Steinem – she possessed the glamour and style as well as the fervor for women’s rights. Her second song was a ballad about Berger who callously ripped the satin gold shirt she bought him. She sang so passionately about how his treatment of the shirt reflected their relationship, yet it seemed a bit out of place for a tribe who cared so deeply about not being materialistic.
Ultimately, the heart and soul of the musical was Hud (Nora Schell). Hud personifies intersectionality and gave a powerhouse performance which was the moment they were born to play – standing fully in the light and exploring all aspects of who they are and who they are meant to be. Actress and songwriter Shaina Taub (“Suffs”) could take the story of Sheila, Jeanie, Crissy, and Hud and make a new musical that would truly embody the new Age of Aquarius. That would be my dream sequel to this ground-breaking musical.
The opportunity to see “Hair” live at a time that we are re-examining American values and seeing the genesis of the counter-cultural ideas represented by the tribe, which have become far more accepted today, is a rare treat. The music is so beautiful, and the fresh young cast were incredibly entertaining to watch. Although “Hair” doesn’t necessarily help you connect with the characters, the anti-war message comes through loud and clear. In many ways, given that we are beginning our first year of peace, 2022, in over two decades, the anti-war message is the most important of all.