Joseph Papp has brought his New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater indoors in the firm of a very modern musical. It's playing at the Florence Sutro Anspacher Theater, formerly the old Astor Library at 25 Lafyette Street. It's high, sky-lighted ceilings, Corinthian columns and white wood work might seem about as far as possible in tone and feeling from its current production.
Yet it is not entirely so. For amid the protest of Hair there is a certain decorum not seen in other protest plays. The young people with their pot, their rock 'n' roll, their four-letter words and their casual amours are not nasty. They are, for a change and perhaps inaccurately, rather likable youngsters, no matter how they try to bug their elders.
Book and lyrics for Hair whose title song celebrates the virtues of having it shaggy and long are by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and the music is by Galt MacDermot. The only story line concerns how a young fellow named Claude, with a lovely blond mane, draws nearer and nearer to becoming drafted, which leads us from skits and songs against getting drafted to those showing us what is supposed to be going on in Vietnam. The music is unsophisticated but appealing, ranging from nostalgic, lyric ballads to vigorous stomping dance numbers. There are a couple of electric guitars and a piano on a platform above the stage and from time to time the members of the cast play the instruments; the guitar has become to the peacenik what the shotgun is to the hunter.
There's not much form to Hair which is perhaps the intention of bookwriters and director alike, for the young protesters haven't any discernible sense of form of their own. Their negative thoughts are directed mainly toward Vietnam and if the war didn't exist they'd probably invent one. But their positive ideas, as their critics have often pointed out, are incoherent. And as more protest plays emerge it's becoming painfully evident that both the vocabulary and the ideology of today's protesters are meager.
But there are nevertheless some imaginative ensemble scenes under Gerald Freeman's direction. As an example, three Buddhist monks walk down towards the audience. Behind them come three nuns, who shoot them, and behind the nuns, soldiers, and behind them spacemen, and last of all North American Indians. Each mows the other row down, and, after the lights fade the whole thing is reversed, and done over several times. The attempt at instant history, where one nation or cult kills off another only to be destroyed in turn until we get back to the primitive peoples, wasn't done with entire smoothness, but the message was plain enough: War is futile.
The performances were are just about all competent, and, for a change, rather interesting. Walker Daniels plays the drafted Claude and Gerome Ragni, who wrote book and lyrics, plays a bushy-haired character named Berger. There are half a dozen attractive girls who sing and dance. There's a great deal of positive as well as negative energy in Hair.
Mr. Papp's Shakespeare in Central Park is free, but Hair
commands up to $2.50 per seat. As values go these days, it's a pretty
good buy, and an original cast album is already available.
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