By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Irony, it was said at the time, died after 9/11. (Which I still don’t get.) But rumors of its death, irony might have said ironically, were greatly exaggerated. We’re living in a Golden Age of Irony; a racist, thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator who spent decades stealing money from the working class is hailed as God’s populist vessel by white evangelical Christians.
To paraphrase Slappy Squirrel: “Now that’s irony!”
I’d suggest that while it didn’t die, irony took a well-deserved vacation on April 29, 1968, when Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical opened on Broadway. Thanks to a thoroughly entertaining production from Pittsburgh Musical Theater we can see that Hair’s got a metric ton of nakedly unapologetic sincerity and not a whisper of irony.
Hair continues through February 2. Pittsburgh Musical Theater, West End. 412/539-0900. www.pittsburghmusicals.com
Such earnestness may seem odd considering that the original production featured nudity and drug use on stage and, most compellingly, a cast one-third African American, something unheard of on Broadway at the time. (And, as a bit of trivia, a post-Wall Street but pre-Castro Harvey Milk was one of the original investors.)
Hair was also one of the first “plotless” musicals. The very loose story (book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) is a “Tribe” of young people who overtake a performance space and through songs and short vignettes challenge the political, cultural, racial, sexual and religious convictions of the time.
To be honest, Hair’s script would need to be about five times better just to be merely bad. It might be more appropriate to describe the show as an old-fashioned vaudeville; one turn after another and the only connection is the sincere belief the world can change for the better.
There’s one other thing the turns in Hair have in common, and maybe why the show’s lasted – Galt Macdermot’s unbelievably enjoyable score. Hair is stuffed with songs that have become musical theater and contemporary standards. “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let The Sunshine In” are just a few of the numbers which made their initial appearance in this show. Hair, in fact, would be the last time Broadway supplied so many Top 40 hits … as it had been doing the previous four decades.
The creative team behind this Pittsburgh Musical Theatre production all agree that the music of Hair is really its selling point and the most captivating moments of the night prove them right.
Ken Gargaro returns (to this theater company he founded) as the production’s director, Danny Herman provides the choreography and Francesca Tortorello is the show’s musical director. The three (with assistance from Rocker Verastique and Steven Wilson) work together seamlessly creating each number as its own set piece, finding the emotional and musical core and flooding the stage with the talents of this fully committed cast. Gargaro adds a clever framing device of kids breaking into an empty building and, holding an impromptu séance, summon the “Tribe.” This allows an occasional nod to our current political nativist climate, short-circuiting comforting nostalgia by reminding us the Age of Aquarius came and went with little effect.
Herman’s choreography is organic and evocative, the entire LSD sequence is pitch-perfect and Tortorello’s work with her orchestra and the singers is exemplary.
While the focus is on the music, Gargaro hasn’t forgotten that musical theater is two words and casts the show with performers who not only sing with so much ability but have located the exact, non-ironic performance style the script demands.
Adam Fladd functions as the show’s tour guide Berger and plays with an unshielded vulnerability that powerfully draws us into the action. Ashton Guthrie is Claude, the nominal lead, and with his powerful, expressive voice and shaded anguish moves us effortlessly through his character’s journey. Brady D. Patsy gets a chance to confront us with some pointed angry satire and Joe York makes his short bit into a small gem of comedic timing.
Hair is, like the ’60s was, something of a boy’s party and while there are great songs for the girls they’re mostly in the context of the women existing as satellites of the men. But that doesn’t stop Shayla Barrett, Whitney Noelle, Mandie Russak, Myah Davis, and Liron Blumenthal from exploding their voices and craft on stage.
It might be tempting to smile indulgently at the naivete of the Peace & Love sincerity of Hair’s message. But in an age where social media has turned every single last one of us into outraged members of cancel culture, it’s somewhat touching to spend time with people seeking more love, rather than more likes.