Signature’s ‘Hair’ brims with talent and is an adventure in aural pleasure

    While the musical was once the poster child for anti-war entertainment, this awfully enjoyable production is decidedly more pro-love.

    When Arlington’s Signature Theatre first programmed Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado’s “tribal rock musical” Hair for the 2019/20 season, the artistic staff had no idea that their plans would be derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the theater finally realizes its production (running through July 7), the national focus has turned away from the pandemic and toward a wave of protests materializing across college campuses. That Hair would finally land amid such student-led social unrest may feel a bit like poetic justice, but Signature’s bouncy, nostalgic revival prioritizes the vibrancy of mid-century free love over the grittiness of that era’s anti-war spirit.

    Premiering off-Broadway in 1967, Hair was among the first musical theater reflections of the countercultural revolution and has certainly become its most enduring. Groundbreaking for its irreverence, depiction of drug use, and overt sexuality, Hair marked a turning point for mainstream packaging of such “subversive” ideals. Blending musical styles (including rock, funk, and folk), the musical invites audiences to observe the behavior of the “Tribe” — young people aligned in their opposition to the Vietnam War and rejection of “traditional values.” Anchored by the gregarious, recently expelled Berger (Mason Reeves, magnetic), nervous draftee Claude (Jordan Dobson, tender), and politically-oriented New York University freshman Sheila (a silky-voiced Olivia Puckett), the Tribe celebrates the natural (and, occasionally, chemically-altered) beauty of the world while facing the impending deadline of Claude’s mandatory report for duty.

    8. Mason Reeves (Berger) and the cast of ‘HAIR.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

    Director Matthew Gardiner’s production brims with talent, most evidently in the ensemble. The 15-member Tribe is deliciously cohesive, often expanding to fill the stage before retracting to underscore the closeness of their communal arrangement. Choreographer Ashleigh King offers a veritable buffet of complex, thrilling dance sequences that the performers execute easily. As Hud, Solomon Parker III shines when given the spotlight, but is even more mesmerizing in group dance numbers. Nora Palka’s awe-inspiring (in terms of both sense and sound) Jeanie offers the wisdom of an old soul and the whimsy of a naive optimist. And Amanda Lee’s vocalizations as Dionne easily rival any past recordings of the musical’s most iconic numbers

    After all, Hair’s greatest asset always was, and always will be, the music. To seek another score so stuffed with exhilarating songs is a fool’s errand, and under the direction of conductor Angie Benson, the in-house band (eight instruments, but sounding like many more) explodes through Signature’s MAX space. From the first notes of “Aquarius” to the Tribe’s final harmonies in “Let the Sunshine In,” Hair is an adventure in aural pleasure. Earworms abound in those most beloved and well-known songs (like “Manchester, England,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and, of course, the title song), and at the hands of very adept performers, oft-overlooked songs are given their overdue attention (including “Air,” with Palka at the fore, and “My Conviction” from Nolan Montgomery, whose Margaret Mead is more Julia Child). And especially pleasant are those familiar musical moments (“Easy to Be Hard” and that most perfect ballad, “Frank Mills”) whose arrival is most welcome and whose stay is too short. In capturing the spirit of 1967, the creators achieve timelessness.

    But in such a full-throated affirmation of the endurance of score, Gardiner’s production only amplifies the aged state of its book, which is short on patina and heavy on rust. Loose, often silly, and steeped in period slang, the connective tissue between songs is now almost embarrassingly cheesy. To some, the abundance of such linguistic touchstones may inspire sentimental longing; but to the rest of us, it wears more like the literary equivalent of a Spirit Halloween hippie costume. Gardiner seems to sense the cringe factor and often appears to address it by deploying the old wink-wink-nudge-nudge treatment to little avail.

    But Gardiner doesn’t let the dustiness hold him back from projecting fresh interpretation onto the material (literally). This is first evident in “Dead End,” a recitation of instructive and often prohibitive street signs that highlight the prevalence of social policing. Several Black members of the Tribe perform the song, including Claude, while images from Civil Rights protests and desegregation (a photo of Ruby Bridges entering Louisiana’s William Frantz Elementary School, for example) are projected onto the set

    Later, Gardiner visualizes the decades between Hair’s premiere and today. When the Tribe embarks on a hallucinogenic trip (beginning with “Walking in Space” and continuing through “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”), Gardiner and video designer Patrick W. Lord have Claude seeing the future of American warfare, beginning with the jungles of Vietnam and ending with clips of the last American planes withdrawing from Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021. Retrofitting material from another era with current events can be fraught, but Gardiner’s message is evident without becoming heavy-handed: the future hangs over the tribe like precursors of a coming storm but doesn’t go so far as to overshadow the work on the stage.

    Amanda Lee (Dionne), Jordan Dobson (Claude), and the cast of ‘HAIR.’ Photo by Daniel Rader.

    Still, Gardiner’s Hair feels a bit too polished (shampooed?). The Tribe, despite references to street life (and, likely, squatting), is astonishingly clean. Their clothing (by costume designer Kathleen Geldard) is so vibrant, crisp, and free of stains and tears that the garments would likely fetch a pretty penny at any number of vintage stores around the region. Likewise, their crashpad (by scenic designer Paige Hathaway) is well-appointed and carefully arranged with magazine clippings and housewares. The aesthetic is so overly curated that scrappy quips like the one admonishing under-arm deodorant (that pesky book strikes again) sound all the more silly. The major visual exception, in conjunction with Lord’s terrific video projections, is Jason Lyons’ comprehensive lighting design. Lyons runs the gamut from bold washes of ultra-vibrant reds, greens, blues, and yellows to focused flashes and tight, shadowy backlighting (like in the notorious brief but briefless strip scene). Paper lanterns hang above to extend the Tribe’s base into the audience, and long, narrow beams jut out from a large suspended circle (at different times a moon, a video screen, and a shattered mirror), often brightly showcasing the color spectrum as if to dutifully say, “Look, we are letting the sunshine in.”

    If you need any indication that Hair is a beloved work, look no further than the audience, some of whom, at least on the night this critic saw the show, went so far as to come in costume. While Hair may have once been the poster child for anti-war entertainment, this awfully enjoyable production is decidedly more pro-love. “How dare they try to end this beauty?” the Tribe asks over and over. Nearly six decades on and with countless productions under its belt, the musical seems to answer its own question: that trying is futile. Hair is here to stay.

    Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

    Hair plays through July 7, 2024, in the MAX Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$128) call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

    The program for Hair is online here.

    Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app. An ASL-interpreted performance is scheduled for May 18 at 2 PM.

    COVID Safety: Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on April 28 at 2 PM and on June 11 at 7:30 PM and June 20 at 8 PM Face masks are optional but strongly encouraged inside the performance spaces at other performances. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.


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