NOTE: This is the second part of a slightly longer article
in which Ms. Hering also reviews another show.
....How much happier the balance was in Hair (Broadway premiere April 29; Biltmore Theatre). Here performers, material, and direction were in a constant state of mutual catalysis, mutual combustion, as though Alfred Nobel himself were backstage stirring things up.
This version of Hair is substantially from the original presented last fall off Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre. Although the book and lyrics are still by the gifted and prolific Gerome Ragni and James Rado and the music is by the equally gifted Galt MacDermot, the new production was directed by Tom O'Horgan. The dance director (yes, she's called that, rather than choreographer, in the printed program) was Julie Arenal. Some of the original performers are left, notably Sally Eaton, Shelley Plimpton, Gerome Ragni, and Paul Jabara. But a whole other crew of lean, Medusa-haired boys and straggle-pated girls has been assembled to scoot up the aisles, hang perilously over catwalks, swing out over the audience on a rope (all the while singing and gabbing).
Tom O'Horgan calls his approach "kinetic Sculpture". I'd just call it theatre that makes the performers and their ambiance come totally alive and stay alive through a brilliant bombardment of twenty-nine songs (ten more than the original version of Hair). Yes, it makes the audience come alive too - and maybe want to take the hippie generation a little more seriously. After all, despite it's wildness and irreverence, there isn't an undisciplined moment in this production. As a matter of fact, right before it began, while the actors were arranging themselves in the aisles or perching on the arms of theatre seats, I asked blonde Lynn Kellogg if they resorted to much improvisation. She said "No."
There was something almost ceremonial about the beginning of Hair, with the performers gradually assembling from various parts of the theatre to circle a brazier on stage. Symbolically Gerome Ragni as Berger, the bright, resourceful school drop-out, snipped a bit of James Rado's hair, thus presaging the conclusion when Rado, as Claude, the unconfirmed hippie, would be drawn into the army.
The original version of Hair made a stronger point of Claude's conflict between rebellion and conformity and in so doing gave several of the surrounding characters - notably Jeanie (Sally Eaton), Sheila (Lynn Kellogg), and even Berger more to work with in the way of characterization. Now Hair is no longer a play with musical and choreographic components. Instead it accumulates a theme as it goes along. That's a pretty daring way to work (especially on Broadway), as daring as the way a Merce Cunningham or a Yvonne Rainer makes dances.
The action alternates between a tribal look as at the beginning and all manner of individual and small ensemble spark-offs. For example, immediately after the circling dance to "Aquarius", Berger hoots an impetuous love song about a girl named "Donna" all the while swinging on that crazy rope. When they sing "Ain't Got No" a bitter, yet exuberant expose of their mutual poverty, they do it on a single hard breath, and then they break apart into a bouncy peace march whose placards are intermingled with such gems as "Lay, don't slay" and "See Ethel Merman in Hair".
The older generation (or should it be called de-generation?) comes in for some marvelous ribbing. A tourist lady whose huge corsage and beflowered hat are a grotesque parallel to the adornments of flower children, gives a sanctimonious lecture on how to understand hippies - and then turns out to be a transvestite. Parents and school principals come in sets of three, as though the kids were seeing them through pot befogged eyes. And some of the mothers are apt to be men, while the fathers are women. I liked one sodden pere whose costume was strung with empty beer cans.
Even when they are spoofing that solemn American custom, a flag folding ceremony, ("Don't Put It Down") or executing a little meditation before a huge image half Krishna, half Statue of Liberty; when they rather chastely undress or three girls bounce around inside a single stretchy evening gown that begins to resemble a Henry Moore gone amok; when Claude has a pot dream which makes Abraham Lincoln into a Negro girl; when sweet little Crissy (Shelley Plimpton) sings about a boy she met once, or the equally appealing Jeanie sings "Welcome, sulpher-dioxide. Hello, carbon-monoxide"; or when they all decide tom go down to the park and scare tourists, you feel that they are not so much ridiculing as questioning - and that's reassuring. For as long as kids ask questions, there's plenty of hope for them.
It's amazing how much variety Galt MacDermot achieved within the rock and raga idioms. As for the action ("choreography" does seem too old-fashioned a word for this production) it would take more than a single viewing (and a lot more familiarity with their personal styles) to know where director Tom O'Horgan left off and Julie Arenal came on. Perhaps that, too, is good. It means that the musical theatre may be moving out of the era we used to consider revolutionary, where dance was used to further the action, rather than interrupting it. And it is now entering the era where the action is all one.
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