A Flashback to the '60s, a Message for Today
A cast led by Sam Harris and Steven Weber makes a strong plea for peace and tolerance in vibrant Reprise! concert of 'Hair.'
by Michael Phillips
The Los Angeles Times - June 18, 2001

Its success turned it into something it claimed to despise: a mainstream American commodity, a brand name like IBM, but smaller. And with hippies.

Now, enough time and psychic distance has passed since 1967 to make it work as nostalgia.

"Hair" is back, with a bang, with a bong, with a fetchingly nostalgic plea for tolerance and peace--and, crucially, with a wealth of high-grade Broadway pop. Continuing through Sunday, this concert-style presentation of Reprise! Broadway's Best rates as one of the company's most vibrant efforts.

After its move to Broadway, the shaggy counterculture musical--notorious for its brief nudity--lost the Tony Award to "1776," a counter-counterculture musical in which the characters wore as much clothing as possible at all times. Both "Hair" and "1776" are part of the current Reprise! series, "Hair" being a special attraction at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. There's
something jarring yet absolutely right about seeing a show in which draft cards are burned (though, in this version, no flags) on land owned and operated by the Veterans Administration.

No one, even the reliably efficient director Arthur Allan Seidelman, can do much about the show's infernal revue-style book scenes. The stridently "now" elements--Wow! So this is hippie life! These people are having a lot of sex!--work as ambient theatrical Muzak, nothing more.

"Now" is now "then," and the macramé libretto by Gerome Ragni and James Rado never was much. When "Hair" premiered off-Broadway, before being streamlined and spiced up for the Great White Way and beyond, the mere juxtaposition of the letters LBJ and LSD was good for a laugh.

The weaknesses matter little when the show is singing its heart out. When the best performers get their mitts on the score's most fervent, propulsive material, Reprise!'s "Hair" has real body.

Not to mention bodies. The show's notorious element of bare skin, once upon a time a thing of shadows and stage fog, is here a front-and-center, full-view affair. As the ensemble strolls on stage in the altogether for the Act 1 finale, singing of freedom, you wonder: Wouldn't it be wild if all concert stagings of all musicals had Act 1 finales like this?

Akin to the recent New York concert staging of "Hair," this semi-staged production unfolds on a series of metal scaffolds. The story thread remains the same. Claude (Sam Harris) gets drafted. To the astonishment of his "tribe," and this is, after all, the "American tribal-love rock musical," he goes to Vietnam, in surreal hallucination fashion. And it's not pretty.

Harris has a piercing vocal attack and a mainstream Broadway brand of charisma. In that regard he's a link to the show's Broadway past. As Berger, eternally the least sympathetic and least-funny funnyman in this East Village bunch, Steven Weber does well enough, though his long, long locks look vaguely parodic on the skull of this particular actor, best known for TV's "Wings." (That's what you get for being adept at light comedy.)

The ensemble's ringers ring loud and clear. One of composer Galt MacDermot's highlights, "Easy to Be Hard," never fails to work, even in lame revivals (and I've seen some). With this simple, direct lament, the character of Sheila--here wonderfully acted and soulfully sung by Jennifer Leigh Warren--begins to mean something to us, and to the show. In this one song, all the clichéd hippie-life grooviness finds its underpinnings.

Warren also leads the way on "Good Morning Starshine," which remains pure pleasure in just about any context. Another cast standout, Stacy Francis, contributes a terrific and varied series of turns, a Supremes-style "White Boys" chief among them.

Unlike "Rent," a conscious homage to "Hair" in its youth-musical aura, "Hair" saves some of its finest stuff for last: the segue from the Vietnam hallucination into "Let the Sunshine In." ("Rent," which I like enormously, doesn't end satisfyingly; its composer, Jonathan Larson, died before previews.) "Sunshine" is virtually irresistible, and director Seidelman's 23-person ensemble delivers this powerful anthem as if it were the answer to a whole heap of societal problems.

If you Zen your way through the nonmusical portions, this "Hair" may well take you to that higher plane.

* * *

"Hair," Reprise! Broadway's Best, Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire
Blvd., Brentwood. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2
p.m. Ends June 24. $30-$65. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Music by Galt MacDermot.
Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Music director Peter Matz. Choreographer
Travis Payne. Scenic designer Robert L. Smith. Costume designer Scott A.
Lane. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Sound by Philip G. Allen. Stage manager Sherry

Copyright The Los Angeles Times Company. All rights reserved.

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