Everything happened in 1968. The Civil Rights movement. The Vietnam War. The Robert Kennedy assassination. The Martin Luther King assassination. The May ’68 protests in Paris. Peter Brook’s circus-themed A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. And Gerome Ragni and James Rado wrote HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. It was a political protest in theatrical form, designed to shock and offend, which incidentally created the genre of “rock musical” and generated some catchy songs to boot.
The current production of HAIR at Enlightened Theatrics is one of the best musicals I have seen, my favorite piece at Enlightened so far, and a gem in Salem’s theatrical scene. It is simply excellent theatre across the board. Expertly directed by Vincenzo Meduri and choreographed by Jessica Wockenfuss, the staging is fast, smooth, energetic, and visually stimulating. As in previous Enlightened Theatrics productions, director/producer Meduri has assembled a team of professional talent from around the country. The vocal talent is outstanding; the rendition of the title song brought down the house. It is difficult to single-out any one performer from this fine cast, but I will say that male leads Drew Shafranek (Claude) and Jake Bivens (Berger) are charismatic, powerful, and beautiful enough that I could I can easily see them as leaders of a real-life commune (or a cult).
I was expecting the shock value of HAIR to be greatly diminished compared to its 1968 debut, and indeed, simply saying words like “masturbation” or the f-bomb on stage no longer hold the taboo they once did. However, I was surprised at how current the play’s themes turned out to be. Besides the military draft and a stuffy society’s prohibition against long locks, what are these kids’ problems? Civil rights, gay rights, gender equality, and social justice. Sound familiar? We have come so far, and yet not nearly far enough. And yes, there is the nude scene. Like strong language, nudity on stage is no longer shocking, but it is still powerful: there is nothing like the presence of live bodies in a real space. That said, the staging of the nude scene was rather conservative and (to my knowledge) much like the original production: brief, dimly lit, and placed far upstage. There was more flesh in Pentacle’s recent staging of Chicago.
On the other hand, this version of HAIR differs from the original in that some numbers and spoken scenes are cut, adhering closely to order of the 2009 Broadway revival. The original featured a more explicit love triangle between Claude, Berger, and Sheila (in which Sheila is not treated well) and more interaction between Claude and his parents. The ending has also gone through many variations over the years, shifting between optimistic and pessimistic final numbers. Here, the company ends with a revival of “Let the Sunshine In,” but not as feel-good, send-you-away-smiling message. This version is a plea, a prayer, a keening cry. I admit, it got to me.
I do not like standing ovations, as a rule. I feel they are given too easily and diminish the value of the productions that truly deserve it (New York Times’ Ben Brantley agrees). But I was proud to stand for this play. It did something only theatre can do; it brought the power of liveness into a real space in real time. HAIR runs through August 16 at the Grand Theatre. Go see this show.
“‘They seek him here, they seek him there,” Jay Gipson-King is a local educator and theatre artist, and Salem Weekly’s Salem Pimpernel. Keep up with Jay and see the full list of area auditions and performances at facebook.com/SalemTheatreNetwork.