By Bryson David Hoff
There is inarguably a canon of musicals: the shows the average person on the street recognizes even if they’ve never seen or heard them, the shows that regularly make the rounds at community theatres and high schools because their familiarity will be an easy ticket draw, the shows that have been done the same way for so long that any production whose staging deviates from the original Broadway production or the most recent revival in any meaningful way it becomes headline news.
Among that collection, Hair is the one that theatres drawing from the canon pull out when they want to seem hip or edgy. After all, the script for Oklahoma! doesn’t include scenes where the lead characters smoke weed or any optional nudity. But when approached thoughtfully, there is perhaps no member of that canon more ripe for the examination of richer themes, a fact apparent in the production currently running at Chicago’s Mercury Theater.
A series of vignettes that slowly evolves into a narrative, Hair is a slice-of-life story centered around a tribe of hippies in New York in 1967, smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution—all of which at turns challenge and reinforce the group’s ideals of “Peace, love, freedom, happiness,” particularly the news that one of their own, Claude (Liam Quealy), has been drafted.
More so than most musicals, Hair lives and dies by the strength of its ensemble and its indviduals’ abilities to function as a unit. This is perhaps the biggest strength of Mercury’s production, as the ensemble blends beautifully both musically and physically, creating a sense of intimacy that draws the audience in despite the sense of culture shock often elicited by the show’s first act. While the public can only speculate at the social dynamics and audition room work that may have contributed to this, the observably universal talent among the production’s cast as individuals aids in the sense of family that is so critical to making the show work. These people are a tribe because they share an aesthetic and artistic excellence, each with their own unique talents that do not overshadow or compete with one another, but instead provide both complement and contrast.
To call any cast member a “standout” would be a disservice to their fellows. So in the spirit of the piece’s free-wheeling structure, here instead are some spare impressions and compliments to performers whose contributions were noteworthy at the press particular performance to this particular audience member. Note that this cast is truly so good that a different audience member on a different night might well come up with a completely different list of compliments with no crossover in actors mentioned and be absolutely correct in the assessment:
Quealy’s Claude is almost criminally charming, making his conflict over whether or not to dodge the draft in the second act painful for the audience in the best way possible. Leryn Turlington’s delivery of the song “Frank Mills” ought to be put down as the Platonic Ideal of performances of that particular number, and on top of that she is a highly entertaining cast member to focus on during whole group scenes. Cherise Thomas’s other-wordly Dionne is a hypnotic stage presence with her natural charisma and crystalline voice amplified by the work of Costumer Designer Robert Kuhn and Wig/Hair Designer Kevin Barthel whose elements coalesce into something in the neighborhood of Earth Mother Soul Goddess. Finally, Michelle Lauto as Shiela, with her serious dramatic chops, contributes a much-needed ground of reality to the highly stylized material that helps this production of Hair transcend its datedness and bring a real heart to the subject matter.
It is shocking how much of this play, written in 1967, seems to speak to ongoing political issues. Specific lines seem to directly address, for instance, the ongoing climate crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests of a few years ago that subsequently splintered off into numerous groups. Collectively, these experiences have influenced (and continue to) the national conversation over what the newest generation of American adults—the most educated, most diverse, yet comparatively poorest in recent history, should expect from a government that demands blind allegiance.
This last one is perhaps the most salient reason audiences both young and old should make time to take in this production. Hair is, at its foundation, a show about coming of age during dark and uncertain times. To an older audience, Mercury’s production allows a window into this mindset through the familiar aesthetic of the Baby Boomer generation. To an audience of the same age group as the show’s tribe, the proceedings serve as a reminder that other groups of young people have waded through the same turbulent waters and though the current may pull some of them under, if you let it, the sun ultimately does indeed shine in.
The Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Hair” through September 17 at 3745 N Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.