Of all the theatrical milestones of the last half-century, composer Galt MacDermot’s Hair (subtitled “the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical“) is the most malleable. It has to begin with the clarion “Age of Aquarius,” trumpeted here gloriously by Gabrielle Gorman, and it has to climax with the anthem-like “Let the Sunshine In.”
In between a director and choreographer have much leeway over which of a half-dozen themes from the turbulent late 1960s should define the production you see. Covey Theatre Company director Garrett Heater shows his hand early in a projected visual underscored with a program note: Blood evokes, among other things, one character’s being called up to fight in Vietnam.
Neither director Heater nor choreographer Jodi Bova-Mele were born when lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s Hair opened first at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in 1967, and then at Broadway’s 650-seat Biltmore Theatre in 1968. It was the height of the youthquake, stomping on centuries-old norms of decorum and behavior. The same euphoric rebellion took place in countries with no oppressed racial minority and no troops in foreign lands, like Italy.
Any guy with hair down to his shoulders was presumed to have joined the anti-bourgeois brigades. But in the U.S.A., the choice of longer hair was tethered, rightly or wrongly, and regardless of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with the dual moral calls to fight racial oppression and oppose the Vietnam War.
Many cynics at the time saw hippiedom as a glassy-eyed indulgence and any political stance as an afterthought. Other productions have emphasized a kind of anarchy. But Canadian-born MacDermot produced enough songs to fill two versions of Hair, so any director can take what he or she wants. The program for this Hair does not list the final selections, alas, but audiences who remember numbers that were mere gross-outs or needlessly provoked the straights elsewhere are cut here unless they support main themes.
The 22 members of the peacenik Tribe, cited in the title, crowd the small stage of the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Studio. From this mobile commune we eventually discern the three characters leading the main story line. Free-spirited Berger (Chris Wiacek) appears almost to be a master of ceremonies. He’s usually seen in a loin cloth, which he lowers to moon part of the Tribe. His close ally Claude (C.J. Roche), with red hair falling below his shoulders, is the apparent leader of the Tribe. He claims different identities, such as Claude Hooper Bukowski of Manchester, England. That’s because his draft board is breathing down his neck, which Heater rightly emphasizes, heightening tension.
Both Claude and Berger are entangled with a lovely New York University film student name Sheila (Riley Mahan), who’s more focused politically. Curiously in a show with the words “love rock” in the subtitle, little energy is spent on romance among the principals. Sheila’s most moving number is philosophical rather than sexual: “How Can People Be So Heartless?”
Among the standouts in supporting roles are gentle Jeanie (Mary Musial), in love with Claude but pregnant from some forgotten one-night stand. Two beautiful women sing of breaking the color-line taboo for love: Dionne (Michele Lindor) with “White Boys,” and flame-haired Julia Berger in “Black Boys.” With ecological irony, soloist Crissy (Sara Weiler) welcomes carbon monoxide.
Not all scene-sealers are musical. Dan Williams appears in about six roles, one of them being the suicidal Buddhist monk, but his best moments are comic. Taking on a drag costume Williams become a clueless British woman tourist named Margaret Mead, accompanied by her doofus husband Hubert (Daryl Acevedo), in sandals and white socks, taking snapshots of the hippies.
For much of its two hours we relish the contributions of Heater’s two female collaborators, choreographer Jodi Bova-Mele and music director Bridget Moriarty. In the tight space Bova-Mele implies massive motion in short steps, while Moriarty’s thunderous, six-player ensemble rocks the house from a perch on a BeVard balcony. With this vibrant production of Hair, the Covey Theatre Company ends its five-year run with a roar.