It might be half a century since it celebrated Transcendental Meditation and Sexual Liberation, but Hair, the original hipster of the modern-day pop opera, can still pack a punch to audiences.
I was barely a twinkle in my fathers’ eye when Gerome Ragni & James Rado’s Hair rocked into the theatres on both sides of the Atlantic and courted controversy with displays of free love, dropping out of school, protests and drug taking amongst its many topics in the late 1960s. Because of its sensitive content, its of no surprise I didn’t see Hair while I was growing up. The show’s music composed by Galt McDermot on the other hand has been a life-long go-to. Hits such as Good Morning Starshine, Aquarius, Let The Sun Shine In and Ain’t Got No.. Life have kept the musical’s profile constant, even to those who have never seen it.
So, it was with much anticipation I took my seat in Cardiff’s New Theatre on Monday evening to finally “Let the sun shine in!” Would Hair live up to expectations or be a bit of a drop out?
Set in 1967, Hair follows a group of hippie youngsters known as The Tribe who have settled in the East Village of New York. Questioning authority and the American flag as the Vietnam War drags on, the wild, colourful, sexually liberated and free Tribe come together in protest and song as one of their own faces been drafted into the army.
The first thing that strikes you with Hair, is its colourful set which plays home to the hippie community and five accomplished band members under the direction of Gareth Bretherton.
Hair doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a show and the storyline frequently require the cast to play up to the audience, which admittedly works a treat. “I thought you were all an hallucination!” Claude (Paul Wilkins) says to the audience early on. Jake Quickenden’s Berger is quick to celebrate his freeness by removing his pants and saying to one audience member, “Hey Lady, will you hold my pants for me?” before continuing, “Mom? Is that you?” Quickenden’s cheeky (in more ways than one) performance is greeted with laughter and quickly makes way to introduce other characters in a series of linked stories relating to how everybody ended up becoming part of The Tribe.
Bringing pop, rock, doo-wop, country and gospel into the mix there are lots of enjoyable songs and mesmerising dance sequences along the way, all frequently getting audience appreciation.
Paul Wilkins stands out as Claude, torn between his commitment to The Tribe and been called to serve as a soldier for his country. From recreating Claude’s initial draft as a comedy sketch to the drama of going to war, Claude’s character morphs into the most real and most tragic.
Alison Arnopp is endearing as Jeanie, a pregnant drop-out who seeks acceptance from Claude and delivers the line “I’m looking rather attractive now that I’m radioactive,” with a beautiful poignancy in the song Air.
Other stand out musical moments among the flowers and rosary beads are Daisy Wood-Davis as Sheila giving a heartfelt rendition of Easy To Be Hard and Kelly Sweeney’s Crissy performing the comedic Frank Mills. Hair’s musical strengths are mainly in its strong ensemble pieces from the powerful Aquarius to the roof-raising Electric Blues, which are a joy to witness.
For Hair’s lighter moments there are also serious issues too. Louise Francis as Raven, Marcus Collins as Hud and Spin as Tajh unite to highlight the plight of racial prejudice in a thought-provoking alternate version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburgh Address, Abie Baby. Later, the brutality of the ongoing Vietnam war reaches a crescendo as the cast perform a moving rendition of Three-Five-Zero-Zero with choreographic precision.
Despite some of its trippier moments (including its infamous nude scene at the end of act one), Hair still carries some important messages. I was taken with the cast’s energy throughout as well as the overall presentation of the musical itself which constantly excited and surprised me.
A production brimming with freshness and energy on its 50th anniversary, don’t miss an opportunity to witness the age of Aquarius as Hair continues to play Cardiff’s New Theatre until April 20, 2019.