They say that history repeats itself and, after seeing Hair last Thursday night, I would have to agree. The "American Tribal Love Rock Musical," performed at the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center in the South End, is a tribute to the tie-dyed, free love era, but it felt strangely familiar in many ways.
According to the show's program, Hair takes place in a "fluid abstract world of the 1960s," where a group of young idealists gather to share love, sex and drugs and to protest the current state of the world. Described in the program as a "psychedelic tribal love journey," the story has little structure but a great deal of meaning.
The show, which was presented by the Musical Theatre Society, speaks frankly about drugs, sex, politics and war, and was (and still is) considered by many to be extremely controversial. Its subject matter and presentation resulted in several attempts to censor performances over the years. Two of these resulted in court battles in Boston and Chattanooga, Tenn. because of the sexual acts, nudity and treatment of the American flag during the show.
The main conflict occurs when Claude (junior musical theatre major Ben Martin), one of the protestors, receives his draft card for Vietnam. Although he attempts to destroy it several times, he never succeeds and is frequently haunted by visions of war.
The structure of the show is sometimes disjointed and confusing as it attempts to capture the atmosphere of the time and characters. Several scenes are actually hallucinations Claude has after he smokes pot. While somewhat bewildering, this is also one of the show's strengths: it allows the audience to feel truly transported into the setting of the play.
The performances carried this show through its challenges. The songs were presented with an exuberance and enthusiasm that was infectious. The energy of the cast filled the room and spread to the audience, especially in the group numbers, such as "The Be-In" and "How Dare They Try."
The song "I Got Life," sung by Claude, captured the true spirit of the tribe. After being lectured about his lack of money and motivation, he is asked, "What do you got?" He responds by leading a rousing chorus while listing his various assets, such as his teeth, eyes and tongue, ending with the phrase, "I got life." His energy is undeniable and his simplistic, satisfied view of life is a refreshing change from the fast-paced world outside the theater.
This spirit is also depicted in the title song. Performed by Claude and Berger (junior theatre studies major Jeff Marcus) and the rest of the tribe, it is a response to the question of why Claude's hair is so long. At first simply an answer, the song turns into a joyous celebration of Claude's mane and everything it stands for.
The vocal strength of the cast was demonstrated throughout the show. The songs allowed the performers to truly display their talents. The choreography also enhanced the show greatly. The group's numbers were free-spirited but skillfully structured, demonstrating the freedom of the characters and the enjoyment they get from their bodies and simply from being alive.
The parallels between the original setting of Hair and today's society are undeniable. Freedom, or lack thereof, was an issue then as well as now. This performance of Hair, however, did not weigh heavily on the similarities to today's world, but instead allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Political issues are not the only parallels that exist. The messages of Hair are universal to people who are struggling to understand the world and their place in it.
Tormented by the thought of Vietnam, Claude asked himself, "Where do I go, follow my heartbeat? Why do I live? Why do I die? Tell me why."
Hurt by the man she loves, Sheila (senior musical theatre Briana Carlson-Goodman) wondered, "How can people be so heartless?"
The main question of the show, however, is posed when the cast members sang, "How dare you try to end this beauty?" Throughout the show, they have touched upon pollution, war, segregation and discrimination. Yet, looking past that, they still see beauty and hope to preserve it. Quoting from Hamlet in the moving melody "What a Piece of Work is Man," the singers described the ability humans have to create beauty, but how that potential is wasted.
The message of Hair is passionate and the delivery is beautiful. Created almost 40 years ago, it is still relevant today. When the cast pleaded the audience to "let the sun shine in," one cannot help but wonder if, this time around, that will happen.