Book and Lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni
Music by Galt MacDermot
Director Cameron Menzies
Choreographer Amy Campbell
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall
Photos by Daniel Boud
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
When the announcement of the 50th anniversary production of Hair was released, there were high expectations and strong anticipation in theatre circles and throughout the general theatre-going public.
Perhaps this version should be reviewed on its own merits, but I can’t help but to compare it with the original production that I saw through a young teenager’s eyes at the Metro Theatre in Kings Cross in 1969.
Earlier in that decade, The Tivoli, Sydney, hosted the musicals Orpheus in the Underworld, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Show Boat, Carousel, The Black and White Minstrel Show, The Wizard of Oz, Oliver! and The King and I. When the raw, rebellious, radical Hair burst onto the scene, it was clear that we were experiencing the beginning of a theatrical revolution. Our perceptions of musical theatre were forced to spin around.
The Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 were reputed to be the events that signalled the start of the countercultural hippie movement and the catchphrase, “flower power”. In that year, Rado, Ragni and MacDermot created Hair.
The scene is 1967 New York City where a tribe of long-haired, pot smoking, peacenik teenagers are rebelling against the social conformity that was so passively accepted by their parents. The combination of the innocence of limited life experience with the self-confidence of millennials is both compelling and nostalgic.
The attitudes are irresponsible and carefree until one of the tribe is drafted into the U.S. Army.
Just as the 1969 production featured such outstanding performers as Reg Livermore, Helen Livermore, John Waters, Graham Matters and Marcia Hines, this version has its share of contemporary stars.
On opening night, as soon as Dionne and the Tribe opened with Aquarius, audience anticipation turned to reassurance that this production was going to live up to all expectations. Most productions, and life, consist of “moments” and Hair has plenty.
For a start, The Sound of Music has 27 musical numbers, Carousel has 18, The Music Man has 24 and The King and I has 20. Hair has 43 and most of them are memorable.
Apart from Aquarius, the first act contains Donna, Sodomy, Manchester England, Ain’t Got No, Kama Sutra, Hair, Easy to Be Hard and I Got Life. A riveting highlight is the naive and hopeful Crissy (Stefanie Caccamo) singing Frank Mills under a special spotlight and to the arpeggios of a single twelve-string guitar played by Seb Bartles.
In the second act, Rado and Ragni lifted What a Piece of Work is Man straight out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and turned it into a musical reflection about the human condition.
Of course, we all mentally sang along with Good Morning Starshine. The a cappella finale of Let The Sun Shine In blew the roof off.
As Dionne, the powerhouse voice of Paulini absolutely smashed the back wall of the Opera House Concert Hall. Prinnie Stevens as the pro-active activist Sheila Franklin, seemed to be projecting at about 85%, or it could have been a sound levels issue.
On opening night, the show’s focus was pulled by the two male leads. Hugh Sheridan as the free-spirited, uninhibited George Berger and Matthew Manahan in the role of the confused, questioning Claude Hooper Bukowski, were superlative. Their powerful singing voices and strong stage presences elevated an already excellent production.
So how did this version of Hair compare with the original production half-a-century ago?
For those of us who were around in that era of tremendous social change, it proved to be a total nostalgia trip. In the original production, the famous full frontal nude scene at the end of the first act was performed downstage under a full wash of stage lights. In this one the performers were upstage in dark shadows. It entirely lost any shock value and was eminently disappointing. This had a cast of 16 while the original consisted of 29 performers, although it was reputed that the producer had hired real hippies for the minor roles, giving it raw, authentic atmosphere. The current show is more polished under the direction of Cameron Menzies.
Has Hair dated in the 50 years since that first production? Instead of the Vietnam War, the protests are now about climate change and other issues and the protesters are Gen Zs and millennials rather than hippies.
So would I go to see this production of Hair again? Far out man, yes I would, in a heartbeat.