Paul Lane and cast in Hair(Photo © Roberto Sanchez-Camus)
Paul Lane and cast in Hair
(Photo © Roberto Sanchez-Camus)

With some shows, you really have to take the bad with the good — and you don’t mind doing so if the good is so great that you want to experience it again and again, no matter how awful the bad is. Though Galt MacDermot’s music for the seminal rock musical Hair is superb, the show’s book (by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who also collaborated on the lyrics) was never very highly regarded. Now, nearly 40 years down the pike, much of it seems dated (in a bad way), amateurish, and nonsensical.

The show is revived frequently because songs like “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Easy to Be Hard,” and “Let the Sunshine In” are all-time rock musical classics — and also because, problematic as much of the book may be, Hair does serve as a fascinating time capsule of an era when flower children were suddenly everywhere, advocating peace and love (and casual sex and drug use). And though there is a fair amount of extraneous nonsense in this loosely constructed musical, its central plot line — the induction of one of the tribe into the army for service in a highly unpopular war — remains sadly pertinent. This is a major reason why the show was so powerful in a recent Actors’ Fund of America benefit concert presentation at the New Amsterdam Theatre and is again deeply moving in the current production by The Gallery Players of Brooklyn.

At one point in the show, the members of the hippie tribe carry signs reading “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” “Not in our name,” and “Fuck the draft.” Their feelings about the tragically misguided Vietnam conflict are heightened because several of their number have received draft notices. For the 1979 movie version of Hair, screenwriter Michael Weller wisely focused on the journey of Claude Hooper Bukowski, who ends up in the army despite the best efforts of his hippie friends to keep him out of it. Without cutting or rewriting the script of the stage show, director-choreographer Steven Smeltzer has tried to achieve a similar focus in the Gallery Players’ production. During the Central Park “be-in” that ends the first act, there’s a fraught moment when Claude can’t bring himself to burn his draft card, and I’ve never seen it so powerfully staged or acted as it is here. Similarly, late in Act II, there’s a “goodbye” scene that’s quietly devastating; I believe it was added for this production, and it should stay in the show forever.

The cast is far better than one could reasonably hope for in a production at this level — even for those of us who are used to the excellence so often achieved by The Gallery Players. Paul Lane is the perfect Claude: sweet, funny, emotionally naked, and with a lovely singing voice. Barrett Hall is a sexy Berger who manages to keep the character likeable despite his tendency to behave like an asshole. Adam Enright is cute and funny as Woof, while Holden Berryman is a strong presence as Hud. Aly Wirth and Lisa Villalobos are adorable as Jeanie and Crissy, spot-on in their renditions of “Air” and “Frank Mills.” As Sheila, Logan Tracey is stirring in one of the score’s best songs, “Easy to be Hard,” and director-choreographer Smeltzer is so amusing in his cameo as “Margaret Mead” that I can’t imagine anyone objecting to his having cast himself in the show.

Barrett Hall and Rocco Arrigo in Hair(Photo © Roberto Sanchez-Camus)
Barrett Hall and Rocco Arrigo in Hair
(Photo © Roberto Sanchez-Camus)

Smeltzer’s choreography is exemplary; as performed by the super-talented cast, it seems spontaneous and joyous in a wonderfully free-form way while never looking sloppy for a second. Appropriately, the production hasn’t much of a set (what’s there is the work of Roberto Sanchez-Camus); but Michael Jones’ lighting is highly atmospheric, and Jenna Rossi-Camus’ costumes are so redolent of the late ’60s that you may feel yourself getting a contact high. Also first-rate is the musical direction of Ken Legum, marked by such brilliant touches as the nearly weeping tribe members beginning the “Let the Sunshine In” finale in a hushed pianissimo before building it into a glorious, full-out anthem.

There are some minor flaws in the show. Though the pacing is admirably swift overall, it does bog down a little in the dialogue scenes, a problem that could be solved if the performers were to pick up their cues just a bit more quickly. The slow-motion choreography in “Walking in Space” would be more effective if we hadn’t seen the same sort of thing earlier on. And though the sound mix is fine overall, some of the lyrics sung by the soloists are obscured by the volume of the on-stage band. (All of the lead singers use hand mics; the large ensemble is not amplified and doesn’t need to be.)

But these are minor quibbles about a near-Broadway caliber production that happens to be the work of a semi-professional troupe charging $15 per ticket ($12 for children). I nearly decided to skip The Gallery Players’ Hair because I had seen the Actors’ Fund concert version just over a month ago; I’m glad that I decided to make the trek to Park Slope after all, and I hope you’ll do the same.

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Closed: November 7, 2004