The shock of 'Hair' is missing

THEATER REVIEW

February 24, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When "Hair" debuted a quarter century ago, it was a musical that held nothing sacred. So it makes sense that the revival -- which opened a national tour at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre last night -- doesn't hold itself sacred either.

What's surprising is the approach taken by director James Rado, who co-authored and starred in the original. With music by Galt MacDermot and a libretto by Rado and Gerome Ragni, that groundbreaking production was a phenomenon that brought rock music to Broadway and espoused pacifism and free love in a nearly plotless format punctuated by shock value. The revival seems primarily aimed at espousing fun.

Nothing wrong with that. After all, "Hair" was a Broadway entertainment. But the manner in which this production goes about being fun is peculiar. Instead of aiming for a radical cutting edge or an easygoing free-for-all (two logical options), the humor here is reminiscent of "Laugh-In" -- a TV show that, while also dating from the '60s, was built around a very different, very formulized style of shtick.

Consider "Don't Put It Down." In this number, Claude (Luther Creek) -- who is trying to decide whether to evade the draft -- is confronted by his parents, represented by cast members in exaggerated senior citizen get-up. His mother is played by two actresses -- and an actor in drag -- all wearing housecoats and curlers; his father is played by two actors -- and an actress in drag -- all wearing phony bald pates. Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson would feel right at home.

From the beginning, there is an attempt to neutralize the show's shock value -- an attempt that runs counter to "Hair's" counter-culture mentality. In the first few minutes, Kent Dalian, as Claude's friend Berger, drops his pants, leaving him wearing only a beaded loincloth. "You didn't think it was going to happen this early in the show!" he announces as he climbs down into the audience, hugs a man he calls "Mom" and begs for spare change.

The talents of the ensemble -- many of whom appeared in the long-running European tour -- vary. Creek's clear-voiced, friendly Claude is a personable centerpiece for the production. And as pregnant Jeanie, Ali Zorlas radiates flower-child sweetness in her manner as well as her voice. But they are exceptions in a cast whose singing renders most of the lyrics indistinct -- a situation exacerbated by the amplification and the loud, on-stage band.

The score includes several new songs, none of which are standouts, although "(How I Love My) Hippie Life" exemplifies the tone of the production. In interviews, the show's creators suggested this revival would acknowledge some lessons learned about sex and drugs in the years since "Hair's" debut. If the lyrics included such references, they must have been drowned out by the band.

Physically, the show's design, credited to Rick Belzer, relies primarily on lighting; its choreography, by Joe Donovan, relies primarily on circle formations and a kind of group-grope effect.

The result appears to be more fun for the cast than the audience. Even though many of the issues "Hair" originally raised -- from ending war to ending pollution -- remain topical, this production falls somewhere between a fashion statement and a period piece. It's the be-in that was.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Hair"

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through March 20. (Audio-described performances 2 p.m. Feb. 26 and 8 p.m. March 1; sign-interpreted performances 8 p.m. March 2 and 2 p.m. March 5.)

Tickets: $25-$50

Call: (410) 625-1400; TDD: (410) 625-1407

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