The kitsch factor was high, but “Hair” proved to be a congenial choice for the Hollywood Bowl, where this counterculture classic from the late 1960s breezed in for three performances this past weekend on a cloud of marijuana smoke.
Now, the friendly theatergoers offering to share their stash with this abstemious critic were no doubt carrying a medical prescription — one difference between today and 1967, when this hippie musical by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot had its off-Broadway debut.
What was once so radical — nudity on stage, for instance — is now quaint. When some of the cast members disrobed just before intermission, parents and grandparents in the audience gazed on with wine-puckered smiles, wondering if they should offer blankets to these crazy kids to stave off the night chill.
But this production, directed and choreographed by multi-hyphenate film director-producer-dancer-choreographer Adam Shankman (known to many Bowl attendees as a judge on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance”), exploited the easy flow of musical numbers. Without the encumbrance of too much plot, this time capsule of groovy hits allows baby boomers to feel cool again and millennials to sample the rhythms of what must seem to them a mythological generation.
Most of the game young cast members were beyond my demographic radar. Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars,” “Frozen”), who played antiwar activist Sheila, and Hunter Parrish (“Weeds”), who played Claude, the Queens teen who gets drafted, were more or less strangers to me. No one in my box of middle-aged theater aficionados could name a hit song by Mario, the “multi-platinum-selling singer,” in the program’s words, who plays Hud. (All three acquitted themselves admirably.)
The only actor under 40 I recognized was Benjamin Walker, who impressed me as a budding theatrical rock star when I first saw him at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and impressed me again as hard-partying, free-loving, rule-flouting Berger.
Surely I wasn’t the only one at the Bowl more excited about the casting of Beverly D’Angelo and Kevin Chamberlin as Claude’s oppressive Mom and Dad. (Maybe I should have taken a hit of that pot after all?)
Now that I’ve made clear that I’m hopelessly behind the pop cultural times, let me drop one last secret: I may be the only theater critic in America who hasn’t watched a full episode of “Glee.” Thus, I wouldn’t be able to identify Amber Riley on a red carpet, but once she took the stage as Dionne for the opening number, “Aquarius,” any resistance I may have had to this exercise in commercially packaged nostalgia fell away.
Singing with enough feeling to shift the position of the moon, Riley set the mood for what was a bright and convivial if a tad overlong evening. In deference no doubt to the Bowl’s restricted rehearsal schedule, Shankman wisely treated the work as a concert with a narrative outline. That’s often how the show comes off even in elaborately staged revivals, so there was no reason to feel cheated. In fact, the production might have been improved with judicial trimming.
If the voices in the main were good, not great, “Hair” is the kind of show that doesn’t need exceptional musical theater prowess to work. A spirit of ensemble camaraderie to match the characters’ generational unity is the key ingredient. And with the orchestra, conducted by musical director Lon Hoyt, drawing out the sumptuous color of MacDermot’s music, no one needed drugs or alcohol to feel high.
Walker, in the role of insouciant, irresponsible Berger, was the most commanding presence on stage — with or without his shirt and pants on. Bell, as his forgiving girlfriend, radiated sunshine for the most part but found shimmering poignancy in her handling of “Easy to Be Hard.”
Parrish deployed his charisma to strong effect as Claude. His singing was solid, but it was the young, tenderly confounded man he handsomely individualized that made us feel the weight of the musical’s tragic antiwar vision.
In addition to Riley for her rousing vocals, the standouts in the supporting cast were Jenna Ushkowitz for her humorous, well-sung portrayal of Jeanie, Chamberlin for his comic work both in and out of drag, and Mario for his R&B electricity.
Kudos to Shankman for marshaling such a dependable team, with D’Angelo making the most of her cartoonish mother role and Sarah Hyland as ditsy Crissy and Jonah Platt as Mick Jagger-infatuated Woof contributing to the free-spirited melee.
The second act got off to a slow start, and the hallucination number had a blurriness that had nothing to do with the drug Claude was tripping on. Another week of rehearsals and the dramatic build toward Claude’s military deployment would come into focus.
I worried that this co-opting of the 1960s — a criticism leveled at the musical at least since its Broadway premiere in 1968 — might be depriving a new generation of theatergoers the chance to connect to a radicalism that our own war-torn age could badly use. But the musical’s tragic ending laid its punch. “Hair” is fun-loving but also serious-minded. I left humming “Let the Sunshine In” but also wondering how I could make a difference in a world once again going up in flames.