It was in 1967 that Hair – The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical premiered off-Broadway. With a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and music by Galt McDermot, its focus on hippie counterculture – a movement with the Vietnam War as its backdrop – and its featuring of drug use, homosexuality, ‘disrespect’ of the American flag and the now-infamous nude scene enraged conservatives at the time. When it went to London, its opening was pushed back until legislation passed abolishing theatre censorship.

But despite mixed critical reviews of its early productions, Hair went on to be embraced by audiences across the world. In his review of Diane Paulus’s 2010 London revival, The Guardian’s Michael Billington described Hair as “a social and cultural phenomenon, a jubilant assertion of life and freedom and a cry of protest against politicians who, in the late 1960s, sent a generation of young Americans to war”.

Fifty years on from the Australian premiere (staged at The Metro Theatre in Kings Cross), Hair is touring the country. So far, the anniversary production, directed by Cameron Menzies, has played Perth, Geelong, Wyong and Wollongong, and arrived at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall last week for a limited run.

Hair is the story of ‘The Tribe’, a young group of hippies in New York City living a bohemian life and advocating for peace and free love while the Vietnam War is waged overseas. At the centre of the show is Claude (Matthew Manahan), the quixotic leader of these flower children, who lives with his best friend, Berger (Hugh Sheridan) and Sheila (Prinnie Stevens). Claude’s hopes for a peaceful life are dashed when he receives his draft notice, requiring his service in Vietnam. He then struggles with whether to kowtow to the wishes of his traditional parents, who want him to “grow up”, and compromise his principles, or to dodge the draft as his friends have done. Ultimately, Claude conforms to wider societal expectations and goes to Vietnam – and it costs him his life.

While the events as its centre may have long since passed, Hair’s fundamental focus on youth rejection of traditional ideas and values and the movement for change afford it timeless resonance. The once-progressive ideas its characters championed are now far from taboo or controversial, but its message of optimism, that a better world is achievable and worth fighting for, largely by a younger generation, is as important as it has ever been.

What is problematic about Hair is its loose structure. A number of its songs (including opener ‘Aquarius’ and the anthemic final singalong ‘Let the sunshine in’) remain seminal classics of the rock musical canon, but the lack of a clear and constantly-moving story has the effect of making the running time (two-and-a-half hours including interval) feel inflated. That issue is addressed to some extent by a remarkably strong cast who, as a group, succeed in radiating a palpable sense of the free-spirited iconoclastic movement. It means that, despite the lax narrative, time and place is effectively evoked, as well as the group’s ardent response to the events of the day. And there’s one moment that remains intensely powerful in Hair, which is its final seconds. A single, shocking image ensures The Tribe’s anti-war message is unequivocally brought home.

Within the strong ensemble, there are standout performers. Manahan is appealing and convincing as the young Claude, struggling with his choice between the path he wants and the path he feels obliged to take. Vocally, he brings the strength that is needed to ‘Where do I go’ and ‘The flesh failures’. Sheridan lends presence and personality to the wayward wanderer, Berger, and Stevens’s Sheila is suitably impassioned about the hippie cause. Paulini’s strong vocals throughout are an asset to the production, and Harris M Turner is terrific as Hud. As Jeanie, Angelique Cassimatis is another of this production’s standout vocalists, while Stefanie Caccamo’s excellent performance of ‘Frank Mills’ makes the number a first act highlight.

Adam Gardnir’s modest set consists of some scaffolding and two staircases, draped with coloured fabric, and it feels ideal as a sanctuary for a group that eschews the comforts of the bourgeoisie. James Browne’s costumes epitomise notions of 60s garments and nicely incorporate vibrant colours. Amy Campbell’s movement is appropriate in the context of the story and characters without being hackneyed, and Tina Harris’s musical direction sees us treated to a lively and faithful reproduction of McDermot’s music.

Half a century after Sydney audiences were first exposed to Hair, the milestone musical has returned to the stage in a wonderfully performed, deferential production that, while not able to shock as it did in its early days, reminds us of the importance of dissent and the collective power to effect change.

Photo credit: Daniel Boud



Venue: Home of the Arts (135 Bundall Rd, Surfers Paradise)
Dates: Friday, 11 October – Saturday, 12 October 2019
Times: 7.00pm both nights

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