Theater Review: 'Hair,' Weston Theater Company | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Hair,' Weston Theater Company

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Published July 27, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 27, 2022 at 10:10 a.m.


The cast of Hair - COURTESY OF ROB AFT
  • Courtesy Of Rob Aft
  • The cast of Hair

With jubilant sincerity, the characters in the big cast of Hair sing of a world that's new and dazzling to them. Sexual freedom and the courage to resist cultural norms exhilarate this tribe of hippies, draft dodgers, drug takers, interracial lovers, protesters and free-love advocates. In the Weston Theater Company production, so much joy pulses from the 1968 musical that viewers may believe in idealism again.

The music and dance is all energy, and, because the house lights stay up for many numbers, viewers and players feast on eye contact. Hair looks outward at a changing world, with little introspection by the characters. Irreverence about sex and drugs arises from an underlying happiness, and, when authority figures are attacked, it feels like liberation, not miserable struggle.

To watch the show in 2022 is to plunge into comparisons of then and now. Today, the climate crisis prompts utter despair; then, opposing the Vietnam War seemed like a protest one could win. In the '60s, "Let the Sunshine In" was not only a captivating song but a plausible worldview.

Hair is about lifestyles that repudiated the American mainstream, and the musical took a form designed to challenge, including the shock of nudity. From the show's conception, the cast was integrated, with Black actors playing equal roles, not sidekicks. The first successful rock musical, it ushered in more concept shows without conventional plots.

The loose narrative follows a character deciding whether to resist the draft, and the show evokes an abstract horror of war. The scene shifts have a satisfying, Shakespearean imprecision. Each song is a little experience, and some lyrics are nothing more than lists of nouns — masturbation! LSD! — waved like banners.

Hair is almost all music: Launched with the anthem "Age of Aquarius," it sails on punchy tunes all the way to its exuberant conclusion. The music pauses for short vignettes or for characters to leap right into the house. Director Susanna Gellert's update of the show includes cast improvisation with the audience and staging that expresses an acknowledgment of gender as performance.

Half the cast are experienced members of Actors' Equity Association, and the others are performers at the start of their careers, some part of Weston Young Company. The fledglings getting their first professional experience have already learned how to project big energy onstage, and the entire cast connects as a joyous whole.

Nathan Salstone plays a sympathetic Claude, the long-haired rocker who'd rather riff on his Fender Stratocaster than march to Vietnam now that his draft number has been called. As the freewheeling cutup Berger, Matt Rodin grins broadly and romps shirtless in a mighty fake fur vest.

Many of the performers play guitar as they sing, backed by a band on the scaffolding. Alanna Saunders, as Shelia, sings with power and emotion and can wail on the sax, too. As the stone-cool Hud, Jamari Johnson Williams moves with sensual power and a delight in standing out. Easton Michaels plays the pot-sharing Woof as gender-fluid and without a care in the world. Ensemble member Michael Seltzer springs into acrobatic dance at the slightest provocation.

The costumes trigger no tie-dye flashbacks — this is an update, not a re-creation. Costume designer Jessica Crawford creates a wonderful riot of competing patterns, emphasizing the abandon of hippie attire. But Crawford uses few truly vintage pieces; loose '90s yoga pants and current loungewear outnumber bell-bottoms by far. The bare chests and midriffs shout freedom; the dreadlocks replacing Afros say present day.

Scenic designer Frank Oliva reimagined the Weston Playhouse as a playground. The house walls and the proscenium's trademark columns are loosely wrapped in plastic, and the stage is a big, two-story U of scaffolding, with ladders and stairs for the actors to zip up and down.

This rough framework suggests both a streetscape, where the hippies panhandle and gather outside, and a world under construction. The musical's core idealism promises that change is possible, and the stage is filled with people creating themselves as they absorb the experience of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

For the first third of the show, lighting designer Scott Zielinski lets the cast and costumes attract all the attention under lights that are as neutral as a gym's. Zielinski saves the big lighting effects for the second act, and Weston's tip-top tech assures some spectacle.

Hair got its first headlines for including nudity, but this production lights that nudity in muted silhouette, almost erasing it. There's nothing titillating, which suits the story's emphasis on healthy sexuality, but there's also no glory, risk or celebration of freedom. It's a missed opportunity to use the unmistakable daring of theater. Instead, the backlit nude scene reflects the most contemporary aspect of this production — anxiety about offending someone.

Last Thursday's preview performance had some younger viewers, but it's fair to say most people watching could tell you where they were when Richard Nixon resigned, while no one up onstage has a personal memory of Bill Clinton as president. Is this musical a torch to pass, or does it portray a time that a current generation, steeped in pessimism, can't possibly conceive?

Youthful hope seen from the vantage point of the gloomy present can look foolish. But it also feels like a little kick in the butt to ask, as young people always will, "Why does it have to be this way?" Protest is timeless, as the handmade signs in one scene prove. In this production, they say "Black Lives Matter" instead of "We Shall Overcome"; "Abortion Is Healthcare" instead of "Keep Your Laws Off My Body."

Different slogans, same conflicts. The need to form a tribe also endures, but the band in Hair is sustained by optimism, not anger. That's the attitude worth keeping, even if the beads should go.

Hair, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot, directed by Susanna Gellert, produced by Weston Theater Company. Through August 13: Tuesday through Friday, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, 2 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, 3 p.m., at Weston Playhouse. See website for additional days and times. $25-74. Info, 824-5288, westontheater.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hair Today"

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