Theater Review - 7 Stages'Hair sprouts '60s idealism in Little Five Points

Pop culture seems to be experiencing a collective acid flashback to the late 1960s. The film Taking Woodstock and other commemorations marked the 40th anniversary of “three days of peace and music.” Video games and digital music restoration have conjured up Beatlemania for a new generation. And the musical Hair, which put a starry-eyed face on the decade’s counterculture, has opened 7 Stages’ 30th anniversary season after a popular Broadway revival earlier in 2009.

??The retro-vogue for flower power may be driven by more than just nostalgia for tie-dye, free love and readily available hallucinogens. The current revival comes at the end of a traumatic decade marked by terrorism, war, economic collapse and bitter political partisanship. Harking back to Hair or Yasgur’s farm (or even 1972’s Jesus Christ Superstar at the Alliance Theatre) expresses a longing to rekindle hippie idealism, the feeling of being at the dawn of an era when “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.” That the Age of Aquarius turned out to be so short-lived only adds to its poignancy.??7 Stages’ Hair opens with an arrestingly dramatic moment as Frecena Byrd belts out “Aquarius’” first lines: “When the moooon is in the seventh house ... .” When the higher-pitched female singers join in, it’s like a fusion of fluting-voiced flower children with a powerhouse gospel crooner. Directed by Del Hamilton, 7 Stages’ production proves the enduring popularity of Hair partly as a jukebox musical that’s low on plot but rich with iconic tunes. Compared to most other rock operas, Hair’s standards hold up as hook-laden, radio-ready chart-toppers like the title songs, as opposed to traditional showtunes goosed with electric guitars. ??7 Stages’ Hair emphasizes the “rock” in the subtitle The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. The house band consists of four veteran Atlanta musicians — guitarist Rob Thompson, guitarist Sam McPherson, bassist Steve McPeeks and drummer David Miksch — who play the 40-year-old tunes with rawness and urgency. The playhouse previously staged Hair in 1984 (another year when the Summer of Love seemed far, far away), and the current production feels like an organic gathering of Little Five Points’ freethinkers and street characters. When the cast mingled with the crowded audience on Hair’s opening night, the actors were practically indistinguishable from the attendees. ??Hair primarily depicts 12 diverse young people proclaiming where their heads are at through swirling, infectiously cheerful song. The fact that most of the musical celebrations of hedonism aren’t particularly shocking indicates the underhyped successes of hippie idealism. By contemporary standards, Woof (Jason Royal) seems surprisingly coy about his homosexuality, while the celebrations of sex and drugs come across as almost quaint. The defiantly exuberant title song, in which the players shake their locks or afros like bobble-head dolls, reminds you of how subversive deferring haircuts seemed to past generations. The show’s most shocking number turns out to be the angry recitation of racial epithets from black radical Hud (a charismatic Chris Love).??Created by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot, Hair unifies the songs with a loose narrative arc that follows Claude (Jacob Wood), a young man from Flushing who likes to pretend to be English, annoys his middle-class parents, and wrestles with what to do about his military induction. (Of all the sociological powder-kegs piled up in America during the decade, the Vietnam War draft probably lit the fuse.) Claude’s extended madcap hallucination of the war and America’s violent legacy dominates the second act. Like “Don’t Put It Down’s” mockery of American patriotism in the first act, the drawn-out military spoof, with campy versions of Washington and Lincoln, comes across as obvious and unfunny. But wasn’t that always the case with hippie humor? ??Similarly, Warren E. Ullom IV plays Berger — the de facto chief of Hair's tribe — as an annoying, pleasure-seeking stringbean in an Indian headdress. His uninhibited preening and leering proves nearly insufferable, but still feels like an authentic portrayal of the era’s role models. Naomi Lavender’s Sheila, who sweetly leads such numbers as “I Believe in Love” and “Good Morning, Starshine,” comes across as exactly the kind of gorgeous, all-embracing hippie chick who’d inspire button-down squares to quit their jobs and follow her around the country. Incidentally, the show’s much-heralded nudity appears at the end of Act One and proves relatively brief, so don’t feel you have to spend the whole evening waiting around for it.??Audio glitches marred Christine Verderese’s impressive solo and a few other key moments on opening night. (Hey, don’t hassle us with your rigid acoustic requirements, man.) You can roll your eyes at the dated, indulgent qualities of Hair and its naïve, hirsute heroes, but 7 Stages unquestionably presents the material as an engaging “be-in.” When audience members dance onstage to join the cast for the extended encore of “Let the Sunshine In” — another of the show’s indelible melodies — the welcoming sense of “tribe” seems to extend to everyone inside the theater and beyond. Even the most cynical spectator might stop and wonder what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding.

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