ORLANDO — In the opening moment of the Mad Cow Theatre production of “Hair,” several members of the cast leave the stage and wander through the audience, chatting with the patrons, inviting them to the upcoming “Be In.”
They’re smoking pot, talking about how “groovie” things are, and wearing beads and flowers.
And then, as the full cast comes out on stage and the play opens to the very familiar sounds of “Aquarius,” we get transported back to New York City in 1968, to the age of Aquarius, as a group of counterculture radicals welcome us into the unique world they’ve created for themselves, away from the rest of a more conservative and traditional minded society.
Listening to the first few songs, as the hippies rebel against traditional sexual morality and sexual taboos (“Sodomy”), racial stereotyping (“I’m Black”) and even something as simple as your public appearance, i.e., long-versus-short hair (“Hair”), the play fully captures the exhilaration of a younger generation not only breaking away from decades of social traditions, but even going out of their way to trample on them as loudly as possible.
With their hippie clothing and late 1960’s lingo, a revival of “Hair” – the 1968 Broadway musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado — inevitably feels like a nostalgic trip. It’s a bit like watching “Beatlemania Now”, the Beatles revival show that takes us from the Beatles’ earliest days during the British invasion to their psychedelic “Sgt. Pepper” era; if you didn’t live through the 1960s, sample it through these shows.
And there’s no question while watching both productions that you get a striking — and fascinating — reminder of just how much has changed in our society.
And yet …. that’s exactly what keeps “Hair” from feeling like a time capsule show, quaint but irrelevant to 2014. It’s an interesting coincidence that just as Mad Cow opened this production, CNN began airing its series of specials on “The Sixties,” revisiting that turbulent era to document how it launched a cultural revolution that played a significant role in bringing us to where we are today.
For example, what may have seemed startling to middlebrow audiences in the late 1960s feels quaint today. Watching young women demand sexual freedom and the right to sleep with whoever they want, it’s hard not to think about today’s debate over whether the federal government should require all businesses to pay for certain contraceptives for women.
Watching the hippies get stoned, it sparks within your mind the fact that marijuana is now legal in several states, by the choice of voters.
Then there’s the character of Wolf, who admits to being madly in love with Mick Jagger and jumps for joy when his friend Claude brings him a poster of the Rolling Stones singer – and then to think about how today, courts are rushing to overturn gay marriage bans and allow gay couples to wed.
Yes, there may not be very many hippies today – save, perhaps, for aging ones who lived through the era – but their values of individual freedom, rejection of social conformity, and walking your own path without society putting up roadblocks has come a long way since 1968.
“Hair” doesn’t have much in the way of a plot – it’s more of an “experience,” if you will, than a traditional storyline. The group of hippies who met in New York’s Central Park include Berger and his friend Claude, who has the misfortune to have gotten his draft card. It becomes an agonizing decision for Claude: should he burn his draft card and …. then what? Flee to Canada?
For the hippies, the war in Vietnam comes to symbolize everything they’re rebelling against: a war that seems to have no purpose, and that serves only to sweep young people away from their homes, families and communities to fight in the jungles of a Southeast Asian nation, and to kill people they have no conflict with. Their spirit of rebellion is summed up in a stunning way in one of the play’s best songs during the second act, “Walking in Space,” when the hippies sing “How dare they try to end this beauty …. ” Rather than simply become weapons in the government’s war machine, they want instead to drop out and rediscover themselves beyond the values of mainstream society.
The play’s anti-war songs, most powerfully the finale, “Let The Sun Shine In,” are remarkably moving and stirring 46 years later. Ten years ago, Seminole State College produced “Hair” at the height of protests over the Iraq War, and it was surprising how relevant many of the themes still were. Claude’s fate still has the ability to leave us feeling a deep sense of injustice and great loss.
Mad Cow does an excellent job of capturing the frantic energy and excitement of “Hair,” and it definitely feels like so much more than just a nostalgia trip; Jaymeson Metz, as the extroverted Berger, and Byron DeMent as the romantic idealist Claude, do an excellent job in their roles, while the entire cast captures not just the tragedy in Claude’s fate, but also the full spirit of what made the Bohemian ways of the hippies so alluring in the polarizing late 1960s.
The show also captures the humor in the Ragni-Rado show, most hilariously in the second act when Claude trips out and imagines himself already in Vietnam, where his adventures deliver him to an Abraham Lincoln reinvented as a black woman and Catholic nuns praying with Buddhists.
The production also beautifully captures the poignancy of one quiet moment, where Claude and Berger cast a simple wish: that it would begin to snow, and perhaps turn into a blizzard; and, as Claude notes, “come down in sheets, mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, rabbits, cover everything in beautiful, white, holy snow, and I could hide out a hermit and hang on a cross and eat cornflakes.”
Yes, “Hair” is rooted in its time and era, and can be enjoyed as a period piece with some truly first rate songs.
But it can also be viewed as a road map to today’s culture wars, and a fascinating glimpse into the baby steps that got us where we are today.
“Hair” plays through July 6 at the theater at 54 W. Church Street in downtown Orlando, with performances on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Call 407-297-8788 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for tickets.
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