By James Rado and Gerome Ragni
Presented by the Stillpointe Theatre Initiative at the Strand Theater through Aug. 24.
It's easy to forget that "Let the Sunshine In," the ostensibly uplifting sing-along that closes Hair, that prototypical rock musical, is a song of death. Claude-the long-haired, sex-and-drugs-loving young man torn between dodging the draft or consenting to conscription-is played by Bobby Libby in Stillpointe Theatre Initiative's energetic production. Throughout the evening he shakes his long black hair, anxiously frets around in pants and a vest and nothing else, flirts with the fun-loving Jeanie (Nina Kauffman) and whoever else is around, and sings about how he's from Manchester, England, a tune that celebrates the freewheeling that comes with tuning in, turning on, and dropping into the counterculture with "Now that I've dropped out/ Why is life dreary dreary?/ Answer my weary query/ Timothy Leary dearie."
Claude considers fleeing the country, but his patriotic parents strongly advise otherwise. By the musical's end, his long locks are gone, as is his far-out getup, and he enlists, cardboard machine gun in hand. A staircase that connects the set's two levels is ingeniously turned into a slab on which Claude lays. He's covered with an American flag and placed on the ground, the cast tossing handfuls of red dirt atop his lifeless form as they sing the production's final number. And as the original production anecdotally did in the 1960s, the cast invites the audience to join them in the clapping and singing. Come along, they invite. Join in. Dance and sing and smile and laugh and revel-and pay no attention to the actor standing in for the countless dead Americans sent off to fight a war.
Pitching Hair as an American underdog story is the sneaky sucker punch of Stillpointe's lively, impressive, and entertaining production. In the program notes director Amanda Rife-one of Stillpointe's four co-founders, along with artistic director Ryan Haase, Charlie Long, and Danielle Robinette-pens a brief history of the musical, from its early 1960s beginnings to an off-off-Broadway run and many revisions before debuting on Broadway in April 1968. Hair was a surprise success, earning a pair of 1969 Tony Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Musical. (Comically, Hair, a musical overly earnest in its belief that America is all about life, liberty, and the pursuit of hippie happiness, lost the Best Musical award to 1776, that overly sincere staging of the Declaration of Independence.)
Hair was constantly revised during its march toward Broadway, and between its 1967 run at the Public Theater and its Broadway debut, "Let the Sunshine In" was added to the production, put in to give the musical a more positive ending. A little detail like that provides a creepy relevance to framing Hair in the 21st century, from where the musical's superficial themes of colorblind peace and love, make-love-not-war sloganeering, and freaking out the squares border on caricature. Why revive Hair in the 21st century? Because making the unacceptable safe for mass consumption is one avenue of American success.
That Stillpointe's production is an engaging riot of a good time only cements this disquieting undertow. Set designers Stefan Ways and Ryan Haase have turned the Strand into a single groovy pad with a two-story directly opposite the entrance, with a seating arrangement which positions the audience as people just kinda hanging out along the walls of the crib. A mural of a hand holding a draft card runs across one wall; a derelict building's face on the other. Costume designers Jayne Harris and Samantha Bloom nail the wardrobe-the cast looks like it got lost on its way back from the Monterey Pop Festival. And, like, whoa: the entire cast-all 21 of them-has the thousand-yard stare and permanent grin of the naturally and/or permanently stoned.
Claude's mates Woof (Ben Shaver, channeling Russell Brand's libidinous libertine superego) and Berger (Adam Cooley), when not celebrating the joys of sex and substances, try to get Claude to get with the acid-is-groovy-screw-the-pigs program and burn his draft card and hightail it to Canada. It's a feeling occasionally echoed by Jeanie (Nina Kauffman, who deserves an award for being able to act like she's on a pharmaceutical cocktail, sing, and score belly laughs with the script's punchlines) when she's not talking about the fact that she's pregnant by a speed freak.
So much of Hair is just that kind of Methedrine injection, less a cohesive story line than a mood fugue of 1960s countercultural ephemera that takes things that might have once thumbed their noses at the mainstream and makes them safe for popular entertainment. White girls sing of the joys of black boys; black girls sing of the joys of white boys. Gay, straight, who cares? As long as it's got a good beat, we can tap our feet to it and giggle at the make-believe freaks who would normally draw out our moral superiority. Oh look, that unmarried young pregnant woman is taking drugs with all her friends.
That Hair made such a splash in 1968 feels especially sanguine. The timeline of that year reads like a litany of social unrest: In Southeast Asia the Tet Offensive was launched, the Ha My and My Lai massacres occurred, and 12 U.S. Air Force pilots were killed in the then-hushed Laotian Civil War. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated months apart. Oakland police traded gunfire with members of the Black Panther party. An estimated 1 million students and workers shut Paris down in May. The CIA launched the Phoenix Program, which included targeted killings in Southeast Asia. Soviet military forces invaded Czechoslovakia to shut down the Prague Spring. The Army and Marines started sending troops back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours. Nine Catholic activists burned draft cards with homemade napalm in Catonsville, Md. And from April 29, 1968, through July 1, 1972, Hair-the story of one young man being turned into cannon fodder for the war machine-was staged 1,750 times.
In the musical, the song "Hashish" makes druggy abbreviations comical-LSD, DMT, STP, BLT, A&P, IRT, APC-which gets reprised later in the song "Initials." That song imagines president Lyndon B. Johnson coming to Greenwich Village and seeing nothing but the youth of America on drugs with a chorus that goes "LBJ IRT/ USA LSD/ LSD LBJ/ FBI CIA." It's a quiet reminder that moving from LSD, THC, SNCC, et al. to FBI, CIA, NSA, FISA, and PRISM is simply a game of Boggle. Can't wait for Metadata: The Musical.