REVIEW: Hair a joyful 1960s revival

Hair Mayfield Theatre GigCity EdmontonThe 1960s were the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius” – Aquarius being the sixth sign of the zodiac. Society was in ferment, hippies were in the streets, the sexual revolution was upon us, the Vietnam war was polarizing American society – and Hair was on Broadway.

Audiences both loved it (“…sloppy, vulgar and terrific”) and hated it (“… without beauty or artistry”). No glitzy Cole Porter-Irving Berlin musical with sequined show girls and manicured male leads, it was the real thing written by two shaggy counterculture dudes – James Rado and Gerome Ragni. They managed to attract Canadian musician Galt MacDermot and he took their chaotic material and gave it shape. Hair featured a liberal use of profanity, celebrated illegal use of drugs, denigrated the American flag and generally questioned the morality of the time.

The show redefined musical theatre and gave us the first “rock musical” in 1967. Audiences accepted it to their bosom and it ran for 1,750 performances on Broadway.

There was even (gasp!) a nude scene – absent in the Mayfield Dinner Theatre production that opened in Edmonton Friday night.

Hair Mayfield Theatre GigCity EdmontonHair now rises again from the turmoil of the times to be an entertainment for the genteel patrons of a dinner theatre. This is the second time around for this show at the Mayfield. The first was 21 years ago, and the original audiences managed to survive all those cuss words and unclothed bodies. There were no reports of diners losing their supper or bolting for the door.

And so how has an icon from the darkest ’60s aged? Very well actually. The subtitle for the show is The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical and director Ron Jenkins (Chicago, The Black Rider) takes those words seriously, turning his flower children into a writhing, rocking mass of thrashing humanity as if at the altar of an alien god. The evening begins with a soaring energy and goes up from there.

Hair has always been a valid expression of youthful exuberance (Let The Sunshine In) and the rejection of the repression of previous generations. The Vietnam War remains an ugly scar on the American psyche and the show’s celebration of spirituality, honesty, naturalness and just plain heart still reverberates. In our age, the Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements continue to show the remarkable resiliency of the youth-driven passions that Hair celebrates.

The plot has a colony of hippies living in poverty in New York. They protest conscription and the war. Claude (Michael Cox), his friend Berger (Andrew Cohen) and their roommate Sheila (Laura Olafson) struggle to find a balance in the chaotic world around them. Claude is drafted and is determined not to give in to his conservative parents (and by extension the conservative society that surrounds them) and abandon his pacifist principles.

There are 16 in the cast and each succeeding voice in the tribe seems better than the last.

The slim plot is mostly a platform from which to hang an unending series of foot-stompers, anthems and the occasional big power ballad. The music is infectious from beginning to end, despite composer Leonard Bernstein’s remark that the lyricists just opened their thesaurus of obscene words and strung them together. Pish, Mr Bernstein. These words project and illuminate the sincere inner feelings of the tribe and the moral attitudes of a generation. “Hell, no! I won’t go!”

Narda McCarroll’s set is a psychedelic fever dream and Leona Brausen’s costumes are a 60s riot of funk. Van Wilmott’s five piece band often sounds as big as a full pit orchestra.

This Mayfield production is forever young and contagiously joyful.

Hair plays in the Mayfield Dinner Theatre through June 12.