By Jane Recker
Given the similarities between the crises facing the country now and those in the 60’s, it’s tempting to emphasize the anger in Hair, the quintessential “Fuck the establishment” flower-power rock musical that first hit Broadway in 1968.
Instead, in its current iteration at the gorgeous Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, Director Lauren Rawitz makes a bold choice and highlights the genuine innocence of the hippies throughout the show.
It’s easy to forget that the flower children were just that: Children. The bohemians of the 60’s weren’t full-fledged adults ready to handle a rapidly changing reality; they were young people in their early 20’s struggling to understand their modern world, a world that seemed to have no reverence for life or individuality.
Hair has been infamous since its debut for its prolific use of sex, drugs and nudity. Rawitz’s take on Hair softens the controversial parts of the show by harkening back to the original credo of the hippies: Do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, and love one another. The rampant drug use is not a vice, but rather an exploration of the reaches of the human mind. The orgy scene isn’t an homage to sodomy and sinfulness, but rather a celebration of human sexuality. And somehow, the nudity, rather than being jarring and profane, comes across as a stripping down to the innocence of the naked body.
Unfortunately, while this ingenuous take is effective in re-framing the lewder parts of the show, it causes other scenes to lack their necessary sex-charged energy. Much of the first act drags: the usually bombastic “Aquarius” feels vacant; the normally hilarious Margaret Mead scene is decidedly un-funny; and Claude’s refusal to burn his draft card lacks the emotional intensity necessary to communicate the gravity of his decision. (A full plot synopsis and production history of the musical may be read here.)
This lack of energy isn’t helped by the choreography. Perhaps Choreographer Jen Cupani was attempting to create a choreographed chaos. Sadly, it just reads as chaotic. The show’s youthful character further exacerbates this, as what might have been intended to be a wild and frenzied celebration of free love becomes a bunch of children jumping up and down onstage. A shame, as the cast has quite a few virtuosic dancers: Leon Evans (Hud) does a James Brown impression that grooves, swivels and drops better than the legend himself.
Luckily, the raw talent of the show’s leads keep the first act moving enough to make it to intermission. The trio of golden-voiced Claude (Jonathan Stombres), class clown Berger (Alex Levy), and the oh-so-fabulous Woof (Steven Schaeffer) illustrate a palpable chemistry, playing off each other as if they had done the show together for years.
But the true star of the show is Abby Vombrack, who plays passionate protestor Sheila. A character of dynamic emotional range, Vombrack nails Sheila’s every high and low. Her fiery and exuberant “I Believe in Love” is complemented by the impassioned and emotionally layered “Easy to be Hard.” Vombrack effortlessly floats through her heart-wrenching low range into her chill-inducing high belt, all while convincingly crying with a vulnerability that foreshadows what’s to come after intermission.
The depth of the second act makes up for the show’s flat start. Claude’s hallucination simultaneously communicates the folly and wastefulness of war while keeping the audience roaring with laughter. The subtle messages of the scenes are highlighted through Matt Winstead’s lighting design, which makes the simple American flag backdrop appear inviting in one moment and menacing in the next.
The technical climax of the show comes after half an hour of Claude’s strangely hilarious hallucination involving a cowardly George Washington, a dynamo Aretha Franklin and an unapologetically black Abraham Lincoln. Breaking the enjoyable and semi-pastoral scene, the stage is bombarded with flashing strobe lights as row after row of young soldiers are gunned down to the jarring sound of machine-gun fire.
Hair’s closing number, “Let the Sun Shine,” is the culmination of all of the contrasting sentiments of the tribe. There is simultaneously joy and sorrow, triumph and defeat and, above all, an unyielding sense of hope that has been tangibly threaded throughout the entire piece. The show closes not with the tribe mourning the loss of their friend, but with Brittany Wolfe as the gentle Crissy tenderly singing and watering a flower, creating life even as the names of those lost in Vietnam flash around her.
It is just the gentle sort of resilience the flower children sought to spread to the world.
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents “Hiar” through July 1 at the Metropolis, 111 W Campbell St., Arlington Heights. More information and tickets are available here.