Theatre Review: ‘Hair’ at Serenbe Playhouse

Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus

“Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” bombards the senses—the sounds, the smells, the visual stimulation—after awhile it becomes hypnotic; but instead of distracting from the passion, beauty, and sweetness of the story, the psychedelic stimuli enhance everything, and you begin to feel you’re indeed “Walking in Space.”

To backtrack: Serenbe Playhouse is presenting “Hair,” book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot, direction by Brian Clowdus; the show runs outdoors in Wildflower Meadow through Aug. 18. Even though Serenbe performed an unforgettable “Hair” in 2013, the time seems right for an encore for two reasons: This is the Playhouse’s 10th year, and 50 years ago, August 1969, the most famous music festival in the history of the world—Woodstock—took place in upstate New York.

I’m sure you know that both “Hair” and Woodstock were offsprings of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the late 1960’s, and both showed denizens of the Age of Aquarius living a bohemian life and protesting the Vietnam War (“Make love, not war!”). Both are celebrations of the power and joy of youth and the young at heart.

Diana Thompson, a Woodstock attendee, reports in “Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World,” that when Richie Havens opened the festival singing about freedom, “It really did just sort of grab you…and from that moment on it (Woodstock) became a really spiritual experience about peace.” So is “Hair,” if you’re in the right state of consciousness.

“Hair” came first, opening Off-Broadway in 1967 and on Broadway in 1968 at the Biltmore Theatre; it ran for 1,750 performances. I saw it there in 1970 (as a child of course); it rocked my world, as they say. The big advantage the original show had was that the Vietnam War was going on—imagine. I’ve seen it several more times, including Serenbe’s 2013 version and the luminous 2009 Broadway revival. Full disclosure: I love the show and have known the lyrics forever.

The current production has a fine cast, attractive and talented, and you may fall in love with all of them. The plot? “Hair” is really what they used to call a “happening.” A group of young hippies hang out in New York, live, love, sing, laugh, take off their clothes (very briefly), smoke grass, and try to avoid the ominous rumblings of Vietnam. An earnest, attractive young man named Claude (Zane Phillips) is a pacifist, trying to avoid the draft. His best pal Berger (Adante Carter), an ebullient hippie-in-chief, tries to help him and keep up the tribe’s spirits.

It may be difficult for young people to realize how dire a thing the draft was in 1968 for young men. If you were in college and flunked out, you were immediately classified as 1-A—eligible for immediate enlistment—and an almost certain trip to Vietnam. Have you visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington? Over 58,000 Americans died there; and countless more were injured. It was no game.

Yet the exuberant hippies of “Hair” sing about the joys of “Life” and their “Hair” (two of my favorite songs from the show) and bolster up one another’s spirits. Alexandria Joy’s (Dionne) soaring “Aquarius” gets the evening going. She is joined by Sharon McCarren’s Jeanie, Leo Thomasian’s Woof (who has a “thing” for Mick Jagger—very funny), Casey Shuler’s Sheila (“Easy to Be Hard”–outstanding), Terrence J. Smith’s Hud, Brooke Bradley’s Crissy (“Frank Mills”), Stephanie Zandra’s Ronny, and Erik Abrahamsen’s Steve; and a special appearance by Braden Chapman/Mimi Imfurst.

More tribe members, each outstanding and indispensable: Jessica De Maria, Jeremy Gee (who seems to be everywhere at once, from swinging on a rope of aeriel silk to sauntering through the pre-show audience smoking a “j” and offering to share, to lending a magnetic presence to the proceedings, he seems to embody the Woodstock generation; he could have played any part in the show and proves once and for all that there truly are no small parts), Cullen Gray, Megan O’Dell, Micah Patterson, Zuri Petteway, Karley René, Brandon L. Smith, Barry Westmoreland.

Music director Ed Thrower makes six musicians sound like 26; an incredible, big sound. He and superb sound designer Bobby Johnston must be very careful not to overpower the singers; if I had not known the lyrics, I think I would have missed some words. This problem only occurred occasionally. Bubba Carr’s choreography is, to no one’s surprise, flawless.

I must say that the famous cathartic ending of “Hair” was a bit lackluster; Claude is sort of a Christ figure at the end, symbolically sacrificing himself for us all. Here I wasn’t certain exactly what was happening. Also missing is the closing invitation to the audience to join the cast in dancing during the climactic “Let the Sun Shine In.” I have seen productions where this is a moment of almost religious ecstasy. I suppose safety precautions played a part, since the audience would have had to walk up a ramp to the stage. Still, it seems the performers could have descended to us; and I don’t think this is the moment to ask for donations.

Still, “Hair” is a great show, and it’s a great evening. If you go on August 15-17, you’ll be there exactly 50 years after Woodstock happened!

For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.

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