It was mid-1968. LBJ was still President, with Richard Nixon’s election and seven more years of war in Vietnam yet to come. Already, though, there were “tribes” of young people in their teens and twenties whose dissatisfaction with an America riddled with racism, poverty, sexism, sexual repression, and political corruption led them to create the hippie movement of the 60s. More than anything else, though, these “new American patriots,” as they saw themselves, were in revolt against a war they believed to be unjust, unnecessary, and un-American.

Meanwhile, on Broadway, conservatively-dressed New Yorkers, housewives from the suburbs, and out-of-towners from the Midwest were enjoying musical fare like Mame, Sweet Charity, and Promises, Promises. Imagine, then, the reaction of these traditional-looking and thinking theatergoers when Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968. The show seemed to celebrate profanity, illegal drugs, pacifism, sexual adventurousness, and a disrespect for all things “American.” Just the kind of show for Broadway playgoers to thumb their collective noses at, right?

Well, as anyone with any knowledge of Broadway musicals knows, the answer to this is a big fat wrong. Hair ran for four years and 1750 performances on the Great White Way, spawned an unheard-of simultaneous L.A. production which played two years on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, and had an additional eight productions across the U.S. all running at the same time as the show was selling out night after night on Broadway.

Hair returned to The Big Apple in 2009, a full forty-one years later, in a Tony-winning revival which played over 500 performances, won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Revival Of A Musical, and scored an additional seven Tony nominations, including Diane Paulus’s for Best Director and Karole Armitage’s for Best Choreography. It is this sensational revival that has now come to Costa Mesa’s newly rechristened Segerstrom Center For The Arts, a nostalgic treat for the 60something Baby Boomers the Hair Generation has become, and a thrilling history lesson for those not yet born when the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, ten long years after President Johnson Johnson first gave the okay to attack Vietnam forces.

Galt MacDermot’s music and Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book are in awesome hands as performed by a cast of some of today’s finest young Broadway and Regional Theater triple-threats, with Paulus and Armitage repeating their exciting Tony-nominated directorial and choreographic roles, and featuring the Tony-nominated tie-dyed costume designs of Michael McDonald, Kevin Adams’ Tony-nominated psychedelic lighting design, and Acme Sound Partners’ Tony-nominated rock concert-ready sound design.

Hair unfolds as a series of nearly forty songs running the gamut of emotions and styles from the joy and optimism of “Aquarius” to the sad introspection of “Easy To Be Hard” to the sunny innocence of “Good Morning Starshine,” each a production number in and of itself—strung together with a shoestring of a plot. In a nutshell, roommates Claude (Paris Remillard), Berger (Steel Burkhardt), and Sheila (Caren Lyn Tacket) share a complex three-way friendship/love triangle complicated by a national draft that is likely to send one if not both of the men to Vietnam. That’s it. Supporting characters include Hud (Darius Nichols), a proud representative of the 60s Black Is Beautiful movement; Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), a pretty blonde impregnated by “some crazy speed freak” and in love with Claude; Woof (Matt DeAngelis), a self declared non-homosexual with a love thing for Mick Jagger; and Chrissy (swing Laura Dreyfuss), a flower child hoping for a second chance meeting with “Frank Mills,” who “lives in Brooklyn somewhere and wears this white crash helmet.”

It’s hard to imagine a better, or better trained, Tribe of triple-threats than the ones currently igniting the Segerstrom Center stage, including grads (and current students) from some of the nation’s finest musical theater training grounds, including Boston Conservatory, NYU Tisch, and Cal State Fullerton. Though only a half-dozen or so of them get to play characters with names and some wisp of a plot thread, the entire cast scarcely ever leave the stage or the aisles, giving each and every one in the Tribe some of the best musical theater exposure imaginable (and not just in the legendary Act One finale which has pretty much everyone stark naked).

As Berger, Burkhardt is a dynamic, electric, seductive stage presence from his adlibbed opening audience warm-up, during which he strips down to leather vest and fringed loincloth, giving those seated in the front row quite an eyefull. A memorable Remillard does equally powerful work as Claude, torn between a desire for the freedom and escape from responsibilities his life with the Tribe offers him and the sense of duty drummed into him by his traditional parents from an early age.

The pair get the lion’s share of solos, “Donna,” “Manchester, England,” “I Got Life,” “Where Do I Go,” and of course the title song. Other characters are given briefer moments to shine, but shine they do, from DeAngelis’s belting salute to “Sodomy,” to Tacket’s heartfelt “Easy To Be Hard” and her soaring “Good Morning Starshine,” to Nichols’ profanity-filled “Colored Spade” to Sheik’s trippy “Air” to Dreyfuss’s pure, sweet “Frank Mills.” (DeAngelis does a mean Mick Jagger imitation to boot.) As Dionne, Phyre Hawkins opens Hair with the iconic “Aquarius,” singing it to soulful perfection. Arguably the evening’s biggest scene-stealer, Josh Lamon appears as Claude’s slovenly, bathrobed father (with Allison Guinn as Claude’s mother) and later, in a drag role that heralds future star turns as Edna in Hairspray, as Margaret Mead, a matronly tourist who sings “My Conviction” with heavenly power.

Even Tribe members with smaller roles get their own solo or spotlight moments in the extended Act Two drug trip sequence, which features standout vocal performances from Shaleah Adkisson, Nicholas Belton, Guinn, and Lamon (“Electric Blues”); Christine Nolan, Sara Ruzicka, and Jen Sesem (“Black Boys”); Lulu Fall, Hawkins, and Emmy Raver-Lampman (“White Boys”); Mike Evariste, Nkrumah Gatling, Nichols, and Arbender Robinson (“Yes, I’s Finished On Y’alls Farmlands” and “Four Score And Seven Years Ago,” featuring Fall as a black Abraham Lincoln); and Marshal Kennedy Carolan, Remillard, and Cailan Rose (“What A Piece Of Work Is Man”). As Buddhadalirama, Allison Guinn joins DeAngelis, Tackett, and Dreufuss for “Give Up All Desires.” The tribe is completed by dance captain John Moauro and Lee Zarrett, the latter as Principal, Hubert, and John Wilkes Booth.

In addition to the Tony nominated talent mentioned earlier, all of whom bring their own particular theatrical genius to this touring recreation of the Broadway original, Hair also benefits from the contributions of scenic designer Scott Pask, music director David Truskinoff (playing keyboards and conducting the rocking eleven-piece onstage band), and production stage manager William Joseph Barnes.

Though in many ways the once oh-so-contemporary Hair has become a period piece, the issues it raises remain as relevant as ever. One can’t help wondering how much more politically involved 2011’s American young would be if today’s volunteer American army were made up instead of hundreds of thousands of draftees (many of them not particularly willing to go over and die in Vietnam). Hair reminds us of a time when simply being a young American man in his late teens or early twenties was a matter of life and death. It also provides some of the most exciting, energetic musical theater likely to grace the Segerstrom Center For The Arts this year.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
January 25, 2011
Photos: Joan Marcus

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