The dawning of the Age of Aquarius begins with multimedia extravaganza. More than 70 video monitors ringing the stage of the Vic Theater in Chicago burst to life as Jimi Hendrix’s screaming-guitar version of The “Star Spangled Banner” roars from the PA system. For five minutes a kaleidoscope of images flashes back through time, starting with Ronald Reagan and moving on to the assassination of John Lennon, the men on the moon, Patty Hearst and LBJ. Then a dense fog obscures everything, only to be blown away to reveal 23 not-so-unkempt hippies, who quickly form a circle. With deliberate sincerity they begin to sing, “When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.” This is “HAIR” 88.
The counterculture wasn’t nearly this well rehearsed 20 years ago, when “HAIR” began it’s Broadway be-in. In 1968 the non-conformist rock musical offered an unabashed grunginess that jibed naturally with the antiestablishment message of the script. The amorphous story line, crammed with references to love, sex, drugs, centered on a “tribe” and its leader, a longhaired guy who’d just been drafted into the Army. It was loud, funky, bold – and a huge, mind-blowing hit. The musical ran for more than five years, for a total of 1,750 performances.
Now the original producer of “HAIR,” Michael Butler, has re-staged it in Chicago, betting that the play’s message remains appropriate. “The problem that “HAIR” dealt with are still with us and pertinent,” he argues. Yet there is something incongruous about promoting radical attitudes in this production. Twenty of the 23 cast members wear wigs to fake the longhair look of the 60’s. Five of them refused to take their clothes off during the “liberating” nude scene, which closes the first act; some worried about what their parents would think. A few of the cast didn’t know the political significance of a raised clenched fist, or who LSD guru Timothy Leary was until he came backstage. Butler assures the “the cast is becoming more hippiefied, the deeper they get into the show.”
But laid-back this “HAIR” will never be. During one hallucination scene, actors “fly” around the stage suspended by wires. Six choreographers were brought into give the show pizzazz. “The old, do-it-yourself choreography can be a little tiring,” says show director, Dominic Missimi. “Especially because today’s theatergoers are accustomed to the glitzy spectacle. “This is the generation that’s seen ‘A Chorus Line’,” says choreographer Nancy Teinowitz.
‘Overachieving hippies’: And now they’re coming to see “HAIR” in large numbers. Thanks to rave reviews, the theater is filled to nearly 90 percent capacity each week. Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times called it “at once a look backward and a brilliant hymn to spectacular, “80’s stagecraft.” Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune, who also reviewed the original Chicago Company of the musical, gave the current cast credit for playing “the overachieving hippies you’ll ever encounter.” In the grand scheme of things, the pasteurization of “HAIR” is much tamer than many of the perverse modernizations of William Shakespeare. Still, it underscores just how much we’ve changed since the ‘60’s – and just how distant it’s idealism seems now.