While I grew up around musical theatre, I certainly didn’t grow up around Hair. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Bali Hai,” and “Hello, Dolly” were routinely heard in my house; “Aquarius,” “Walking in Space,” and “Good Morning Starshine” were not. So when Diane Paulus’ production of Hair emerged back on the scene during the 2008-2009, I barely knew anything about the musical save a few songs. I distinctly remember being at a red light with my parents on the Fayette St. bridge over the Schuylkill River in Conshohocken, PA when Gavin Creel’s rendition of “Where Do I Go?” came on SiriusXM On Broadway. In that moment I was hooked. For me, at least, the Summer of Love had arrived.
To make a long story short, I bought the revival cast recording, learned every word, started throwing up peace signs, and grew my hair out. During my sister and I’s annual U.S. Open Trip—lots of tennis and lots of musicals—we saw Hair on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. Our front row seats ensured that we got the full Hair experience: we got flyers for the be-in, actors engaged with us throughout the show, and we joyfully danced on stage after what still remains one of the highlights of my theatre-going career.
All of this is to say that Hair holds a special place in my heart. And, because my introduction to the musical was so perfect, I have avoided the show ever since. Why mess with a good thing?
Then, Dallas Theater Center (DTC) announced their 2017-2018 season, which includes Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot’s 1967 musical. Having seen DTC’s 2014 production of The Rocky Horror Show, I knew what heights the Tony-winning company could achieve with a non-conventional musical. For starters, their space is unmatched. The Wyly Theatre is easily one of the most flexible and interesting theatre spaces I’ve ever encountered. Period. While the theatre served as a traditional end-stage proscenium for Deferred Action, The Rocky Horror Show was staged in the round with a fully immersive environment. As soon as I heard that DTC was creating a brand new immersive environment for Hair, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage up from Houston to see the production.
Perhaps one of the best examples of a concept musical, Hair more or less shies away from narrative structure. There is not much of a plot. Instead, we enter the world of this tribe of eclectic hippies for a few hours to bear witness to their free-loving, easy-going perspectives on the world. The show touches on many progressive topics of the era; most notably, the musical is anchored around protesting the Vietnam War. At the end of Act One, our leading player, Claude, decides not to burn his draft card. In Act Two, we see the aftermath of that decision. While the rest of the tribe continues to protest social injustices, Claude is shipped off to a Vietnam where he meets his demise.
But no one really sees Hair for the plot (at least I don’t). They come for hear the classic rock score, to feel a sense of nostalgia, and to immerse themselves in the show’s ambiance. And this is where DTC’s production knocks it out of the park. Under the direction of Kevin Moriarty, this production has got life. As such, it comes with a warning:
WARNING: This production will include hippies cursing, smoking pot, getting naked, mocking societal conventions, meditating, taking LSD, flaunting their sexuality, celebrating their race, creating a happening, singing and dancing. Also, there will be audience participation.
Consider yourself warned, and come to the be-in!
I was warned and ready.
Entering the theatre is akin to being transported to the 1960s. Jo Winiarski’s scenic design creates a detailed, fully immersive environment. Cardboard lines the walls, complete with drawings, quotes, and rainbow flags. One section of the theatre is adorned with lime green shag carpet. Another section is filled with bean bags, sofas, pillows, and a few mattresses. Needless to say, Winiarski provides more than enough visual stimulation.
The theatre is divided into four sections, or better said, environments: The Lounge, The Garden, The Playground, and The Kitchen. While there are price sections, every seat is within 55 feet of the stage. While choosing which section to sit in was quite difficult, I opted for The Kitchen:
The Kitchen: That wonderful place where people gather to eat and share. Seated here you might end up with something yummy to munch on, and will definitely share in the warmth of the Tribe as they hang out in the “heart of the house.”
I want to experience every play I see in the future from the comfy confines of The Kitchen. Once I chose my spot, two hippies joined me and began making peanut butter sandwiches next to me. Having just eaten, I should have turned down the sandwich, but my FOMO kicked in and I ate it. After all, I didn’t want to be rude to the hippies roaming the Wyly.
Hippies making sandwiches for audiences members was just one part of the “happening,” which begins 30-minutes prior to curtain. Hippies roll cigarettes with the audience, paint peace signs on people’s faces, braid hair, and, at one point, lead people outside to chalk the sidewalk. In many ways, the pre-show is just as interesting as the show itself.
While I don’t always enjoy audience participation, in this case, I loved it. This production creates an environment that makes audience participation feel like a natural part of the show. Nothing is forced. And did I participate! When Claude (Jaime Cepero) leaned over and asked me if he should move out of his parents’ house, I emphatically responded “YES!” At the top of Act Two, Sheila (Tiana Kaye Johnson) pulled me onto the platform next to me where I proceeded to get down.
Before I headed to Dallas, a theatre critic friend warned me: “Have you ever seen Hair? It’s so dated.” I couldn’t disagree more. As Hair celebrates its 50th anniversary, the musical’s messages of love, acceptance, inclusion, and social justice remain as timely now in our divisive political climate as they were in 1967. But, even if the book and topic were dated, it’s worth seeing DTC’s Hair if only to hear the score. The five-member band and the vibrant cast help Ragni and Rado’s score reach new heights. Cepero’s rendition of “What a Piece of Work Is Man” is chilling, poignant, and, dramaturgically speaking, pulls the audience further into Claude’s dilemma. Unexpected moments such as this are what keep the musical fresh.
In the end, Dallas Theatre Center’s production of Hair reminded me of why the musical holds a special place in my heard while also showing me new dimensions to the show. Hair lets the sunshine in and there’s no complaining from this theatre writer.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.