Exuberant. Controversial. Political. Flamboyant. Joyful. Everything you’ve heard about Hair is true.
From the opening song, “Aquarius,” led by the powerful vocals of Dionne (Phyre Hawkins), the show explodes with energy. The Tribe bursts on the scene singing and dancing down the aisles from the back of the theatre, swinging off the ladders and platforms on the stage in celebration of love, life, and the freedom to be individual. Each irrepressible, infectious song melts seamlessly into the next, and the Tribal Love really rocks the auditorium.
But just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the synopsis. It’s 1967. The Vietnam War rages overseas and on TV screens. In New York, a group of free-spirited friends calling themselves the Tribe resist the war and all it stands for with love, peace, and flower-power. The charismatic and free-lovin’ Berger (Steel Burkhardt) stands as the de facto leader of the group, who also rejects prevailing societal views (and regulations) regarding race, sexuality, and drugs.
But then Claude (Paris Remillard), whose parents highly disapprove of his hippie lifestyle, receives his draft card in the mail. What follows is a tug-of-war: should he burn his draft card as his friends are doing and continue to protest the ongoing war, or should he join up and allow the army to “make a man out of you,” as his parents want, and do his parents proud?
To complicate matters further, there is Sheila. The love of his life, Sheila (Sara King) is an outspoken, vehement activist, showing up for the first time on stage after being tear-gassed at a Washington rally. The problem is that Sheila loves Berger. But then, so does Claude.
Jeanie (Aleque Reid), a pregnant member of the Tribe who serves in parts as the expository narrator, puts it succinctly: “Sheila digs Berger. Claude digs Sheila. Woof (a reluctantly gay, Catholic tribe member) digs Claude.” At this point, Woof (played by Ryan Link), protests indignantly, “No, I don’t!” – despite having just been caught seconds earlier reaching for Claude. Jeanie finishes off, “And Berger digs everybody!”
This is a show that gleefully and repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, and the audience interaction pushes the boundaries of personal space. With the overly-sensual Berger, the audience members in the front row were treated to close-up views of his fringed, buckskin thong, and patrons seated near the aisle had his fingers running through their hair frequently in passing.
The music is the soul of the narrative. No institution is sacred, and none exempt from the show’s satirical and incisive wit – the song “Sodomy,” led by Woof, is preceded by his making the sign of the cross. From the dreamy, hazy rendition of “Hashish” – a loving tribute to getting high – to “Coloured Spade” and “I’m Black” – where Hud (Mike Evariste) commands the audience to “Step to the back of the bus . . . with me” – the show tackles all of the ideas of right and wrong and turns them on their head. The idea of anti-miscegenation (interracial marriage) is ripped to shreds in the delightfully saucy twin-set of songs, “Black Boys” and “White Boys.” From religion to marriage to race-based discrimination, Hair throws it all in the ring and dances circles around it.
It is joyful and carefree, but there is an underlying thread of panic and despair when the Tribe attempts to come to terms with Claude’s dilemma over being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. They throw in suggestions for ways he can avoid the draft – “Become a nun!” “Wet the bed!” – and talk of smuggling him to Canada to escape it.
But Claude himself is torn in many directions. Paris Remillard’s Claude is by turns funny and heart wrenching. His obvious love for Sheila and his deep-seated feelings for Berger form the core of his resistance to obey both his parents’ will and the government-ordered draft notice. However, his relationships within the Tribe, as loving and carefree as they are, aren’t enough to sustain his visions of a future for himself.
“I don’t want to go to Vietnam,” he cries out in one scene where he also rejects his parents’ plans of his being a doctor or lawyer. “But I don’t want to be a bum.”
This additional rejection has an instant sobering effect, particularly on Berger, whose whole way of life Claude is rejecting. The comedic element never really leaves, however, as in the next moment Claude whines plaintively, “I just want to have lots of money!”
The story, at its core, is the classic dilemma of youth on the cusp of adulthood – where does one go? In one of the most talked-about scenes, with the song, “Where Do I Go?” the tribe slowly strips off their clothing in the closing song of Act 1 as a final protest to those who condemn their beliefs and lifestyle: We are not what you say we are; we’re just human beings underneath it all.
Layers of meaning and multiple themes are interwoven into the narrative – freedom of expression, rejection of war, the casting off of traditional and societal sexual norms and racial beliefs. More important, Hair highlights the difficult interpersonal relationships which prove that the bonds of love can all too often be the noose that chokes.
A beautiful, joyous celebration of life, love, and freedom – even with its tragic undertones – Hair is one show that resonates across generations and proves that love, peace, and music really can change the world.
December 13-31, 2011
Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St West, Toronto, Ontario, M5V1H9
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 8 p.m.
Saturday, Sunday: 2 p.m.
Saturday: 8 p.m.