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My Conviction

ATC does a fantastic job of giving 'Hair' new life--but the production could have used a bit more spine

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Hair is tremendously important in the history of American musical theater. Opening on Broadway in 1968, it was one of the first real rock musicals; it brought nudity and profanity to the stage; and it left in its wake a series of court decisions that liberalized American censorship laws.

Unfortunately, Hair is not a very good show. It features three or four enduring songs, but its first act is an irremediable mess; its characters have less depth than an R. Crumb cartoon; and its plot, such as it is, boils down to a simple question: Should Claude burn his draft card and continue to frolic with his hippie friends, or not?

Hair is not effective as an anti-war protest or a pro-love rally, yet it will soon be revived on Broadway after a Central Park run this past summer, and Arizona Theatre Company has mounted its own version of the show.

However limp Hair may seem now, ATC has done a terrific job of giving it new life and body. The large cast is tireless, enthusiastic, vocally ebullient and so well-drilled by director David Ira Goldstein and choreographer Patricia Wilcox that all the careful preparation looks absolutely spontaneous. As good as all the various production elements are, Abe Jacob's sound design deserves special praise: Every word is clear across every inch of the stage, and the offstage band sounds tight and well-projected, yet none of this is amplified to the ear-splitting volume you get with the typical Andrew Lloyd Webber show. At last, a rock musical you can hear in comfort.

Hair was never about making people comfortable, though; just the opposite. After launching itself with "Aquarius," one of the most stirring opening numbers in all musical theater, Hair degenerates into a series of songs whose sole purpose is to offend the prim, older-than-30 ticket-buyers of 1968. One is a catalog of recreational drugs; the next is a list of sex acts, followed by a lively excursion by a black performer into every racist epithet ever applied to African Americans. (After calling himself a "colored spade" and many worse things, Hud, played by the commanding Kyle Taylor Parker, identifies himself also as "President of the United States ... of Love." In the most moving moment of opening night, the audience cut him off with sustained cheers after "President of the United States.")

There are a few none-too-convincingly simulated sex acts by fully clothed performers, a bit of toking up and about 60 seconds of full-frontal nudity by a dozen good-looking young men and women at the close of Act 1. (Note to the wig mistress: Do something about all those anachronistic landing strips; few hippie girls in 1968 would have gone in for a bikini wax.)

Thus, Act 1 is about as sophisticated as a 4-year-old saying "poop" repeatedly just to get a rise out of his parents. Nudity, profanity, drugs and various kinds of hateful expression have been used to much better and more pertinent effect during the past 40 years of theater; Hair, on the other hand, looks like just another foul flasher on Times Square.

Which is too bad, because the creators of the show said they wanted to explain their generation's concerns to Middle American theatergoers. But as an explanation, Hair is remarkably inarticulate. The kids turn on, tune in and drop out, but only one of them--the activist Sheila, played by the sincere and strong-voiced Morgan James--is really engaged in the betterment of society. The rest is just the chaos that ensues from what George Carlin would have called a "freak accident": Six freaks in a fan hit two freaks in a Volkswagen.

Not even such appealing and committed performers as Kyle Harris, Joey Calveri and Michael Buchanan can make us care about the likes of Claude, Berger and Woof, who strut around touting free love and free grass without even trying to come to terms with their own substantial character flaws. (To the authors' credit, not all is paradise in the commune; threesomes lead to jealousy, and stoners can be unpredictable jerks.)

Things pick up in the second act, when it belatedly dawns on writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado that they have some characters and a slim thread of plot to work with, and Claude's indecision over how to handle his draft notice creates greater dramatic tension. Claude's final moments with the hippie tribe, when he is present with but unseen by his friends, culminate in an arresting image and a well-handled aftermath through the "Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In" sequence. But then everything is spoiled by a feel-good reprise with the cast pulling audience members onto the stage to dance--a potentially powerful conclusion ruined by the imposition of an incongruous happy ending.

That's not the fault of the local production; it's embedded in the show. What director Goldstein does deserve a slap for is chickening out during the once-notorious flag scene. One of the big Hair controversies 40 years ago was the show's alleged desecration of the American flag. True, a couple of people do enter sort of wrapped in the flag, but then the object is folded with the utmost dignity, a sign of respect for the American nation. (Hair was anti-establishment, but not anti-American.) In the Tucson production, we see a flag with stars and stripes, but not in the configuration of the real American flag.

So it's now OK to put a dozen naked people on stage and have them sing about LSD and "niggers" and simulate group sex, but they can't use a real flag in a manner that is actually reverent? (And so what if it weren't?) Obviously, it's possible to mount a once-controversial show, yet remain spineless.

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