Sassy cast draws sellout crowds in Anaheim
By Steven Leigh Morris
Published on August 12, 2009
It's one thing to see Hair on Broadway, where it won this year's Tony
Award for best revival of a musical. The first rock opera, Gerome
Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot's snapshot of a fleeting social
movement in the East Village showed up at New York Shakespeare
Festival in the autumn of the 1967 and transferred to Broadway the
following year. It's quite another thing to see it at the Chance
Theatre, a small venue in Anaheim Hills, where the production's
extended run is bringing the best box-office returns in the theater's
It makes sense on Broadway, even 41 years later, as an homage to a
wondrously, impossibly idealistic affront to the prevailing family
values of chastity until marriage, and unquestioning trust in the
military and the ways it was being deployed in Vietnam. New York and
San Francisco were always hubs of the antiwar movement, and here is a
musical about a tribe of naturalist-pacifists barely out of their
teens, the children of presumably affluent or at least financially
comfortable parents, who, in a time of rare economic bounty for the
United States, chose to live in the streets of the East Village and
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury; who believed that personal hygiene
and shaving legs and arms were the overrated and pointless habits of
their clueless parents. Of course this would play well on the coasts.
But everything this tribe mocks professional dress codes,
traditional morality, patriotism, and the treadmill of labor,
consumption and raising a traditional family were and remain
cultural bedrocks in Orange County. One might imagine that the show
is drawing the rowdies from nearby conservative Chapman College, but
that wasn't in evidence the performance I attended. Though the actors
appeared barely beyond childhood, the audience was very much a
graying-haired, ponytailed crowd.
Among the reasons for the sellout crowds is the sheer, sassy
exuberance of the 15-member ensemble. Audience participation was
always part of this show's rite, particularly at the end, when
patrons are invited to dance with the ensemble to the strains of "Let
the Sunshine In." But as part of his sleek staging, with KC
Wilkerson's lighting design of automated, roving beams, and with
Kelly Todd's taut choreography, director Oanh Nguyen pulls out all
the stops of actor-audience interaction, with performers dancing in
the aisles and cavorting into the crowd throughout.
Another reason for the show's draw is the clarity and quality of the
voices. When Amber J. Snead belts "when the moon is in the seventh
house," from the opening number, "Aquarius," it's a clarion call, one
that sets the tone for this production. As the stoic Crissy, Raleigh
R. Bisbee conjures Joan Baez in "Frank Mills," Crissy's only song
and it leaves you aching for a reprise, or at least another Bisbee solo.
Finally, there are the larger reasons that this revival would speak
to the O.C.: its depiction of unrequited love's pangs amidst a sexual
revolution ("Easy to be Hard," beautifully rendered by Michaelia
Leigh); and the drumbeat of the War in Vietnam, which here snags a
bewildered soul named Claude (James May, looking very Aryan), who,
after receiving his draft card, can't or won't flee to Canada.
Truisms aboutthe War in Iraq are revealed by this Hair's reflections
on the War in Vietnam: that the lack of an antiwar movement in the
21st century was directly related to the lack of a military draft
(the pressures of which are depicted here), and a press wearing
blindfolds (images of U.S. casualties and coffins in Iraq were
banned). Compare also the expressed torment of LBJ and even Nixon
over the quagmire of Vietnam with the deafness and hostility of the
Bush-Cheney team to all criticism, even to the early rallying cry of
hundreds of thousands of protesters in Washington at the outset of
the War in Iraq.
But neither the complicity of the press nor the paternalistic
despotism of the Bush administration could quell the slowly growing
perception that the underlying, official reasons for the War in Iraq
were as much a sham as the strategy for winning there. The underlying
purpose for that war, and our previous wars in Nicaragua, Vietnam
and the reasons in the 19th century that we annexed huge chunks of
Mexican territory, including California, with our troops armed and
ready in Mexico City in case there was a problem was to establish
bases of commerce. This was no different from what the British,
French and Dutch had done previously all over the world. We won the
land-grab tug of war with Mexico unfair and square. No qualms of
national conscience about that.
The only reason Vietnam has been so ridiculously characterized as the
place we "lost our innocence" was, as in Iraq, we lost confidence
that we could win there. That's the main reason both wars turned so
unpopular. Nothing stifles reflection or qualms of conscience faster
than a military victory.
This is why one of director Nguyen's closing images in Hair at the
Chance is so wrenching. It's a scenic picture accented by John
MacDonald's Projection Design in which Claude, blond locks pinned
back, and dressed in full military regalia, stands at attention, with
a name tag beamed with pinpoint accuracy onto his chest. Slowly, the
image melts into a projected image that comes up behind him. In the
blink of an eye, as the anthem "Let the Sunshine In" begins to swell,
Claude is surrounded by names until he becomes a ghostly silhouette,
at one with the black wall of the Vietnam War Memorial, with all
those names of fallen soldiers from Orange County.
Nguyen's idea is an expansion on a similar image in Milos Foreman's
1979 film of Hair, in which the hippie tribe visits at Arlington
National Cemetery the grave of their fallen friend. From there, "Let
the Sunshine In" provides the segue to the antiwar March on
Washington, a gathering of hundreds of thousands, as American flags
and peace signs are hoisted side by side.
After his blistering War Memorial image, Nguyen follows the script
and strains for that show-closing feel-good "sunshine" chorale with
the audience dancing on the stage. But there is no March on
Washington here, just a party on the heels of a very moving funeral.
If it was meant to be like an Irish wake, it came too soon.
We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, a
historic event where hippies from around the world gathered at a farm
in upstate New York to listen, largely stoned, to their generation's
best musicians, free of charge. It was an anomaly that defied human
nature: Despite muddy, bracing physical conditions, the hippies lived
up to their mantra of making love not war. An unprecedented tribe of
400,000 gathered for a rock festival at which not a punch or a stone
was thrown. There was a common, if not communal, understanding that
this event would defy commerce and define a generation.
It was a moment as complex and fleeting as the hippies themselves,
because somebody was watching, somebody who quickly understood that
these baby boomers were a perfect target for marketing. Within a
year, hippie chic was for sale in shopping centers across the
country; with that, the hippie ethos became meaningless. In another
year, it was out of fashion anyway, and we were on to punk. And now,
tie-dye is back and all the rage.
That funeral near show's end is so moving, not just because it's for
Claude, but because it's also for the quixotic idea that people with
mere desire and a flower can stop the profit machine in its tracks.
As we've seen recently, only the profit machine itself can accomplish that.
HAIR | Book and lyrics by GEROME RAGNI and JAMES RADO | Music by GALT
MacDERMOT | Presented by CHANCE THEATER, 5552 E. La Palma Ave.,
Anaheim Hills | Through August 23 | (714) 777-3033