Pittsburgh Musical Theater Flaunts Their Long, Beautiful “HAIR”

By Eva Phillips

Let’s not beat around the bush here (yes, that’s a hair pun right off the bat, but I think it’s the apropos mood for the show)—HAIR is fundamentally chaotic. Which is not a criticism, per se. Barreling through a dizzying 32 songs, the brash and defiant 1967 musical is exuberantly sexual, effusively psychedelic, petulantly declarative, deliriously open-minded, sporadically referential, and generally a trip. And I place a strong emphasis on “trip,” because that’s effectively what HAIR feels like, and intentionally so. Originally conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni to be an homage, of sorts, to the profoundly fraught political turmoil of the late ‘60s and the myriad personalities rallying against the American political regime and ever-strengthening war machine while dabbling in a stew of psychotropic drugs, Hair was deemed  “incomprehensible” by the team assembled at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre to produce the original off-Broadway staging. 

The plot, albeit visceral and evocative, is ephemeral and at times absent, and the experience of watching the show is comparable to microdosing and alternating between your favorite tracks on records by Parliament, Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators, and Showboat. It’s loose, it’s raucous, and it’s pivotal–featuring unforgettable numbers and leaving an indelible mark on protest musicals like Spring Awakening that would follow in its footsteps. 

Claude leads the Tribe

Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s (PMT) adaptation of Ragni and Rado’s musical is as admirable for attempting to emphasize the erratic and flimsy plot of HAIR as it is infectiously enjoyable. Directed by Ken Gargaro in the Gargaro namesake theatre that houses PMT’s West End Series, HAIR is a triumph first and foremost of myriad bodies flawlessly in motion. Those who have had the pleasure of visiting Gargaro Theatre note the extreme coziness and relative smallness of the stage, and so the idea of having a cast of 28 performers buoyantly traipsing, dancing and writing around is one that feels hard to achieve seamlessly. And yet, PMT’s HAIR is exquisitely orchestrated in terms of actor physicality and body movement–whether it is any one individual’s choreography, or hypnotically-executed numbers that manage to incorporate the entire cast on an none-too-spacious platform. Between Gargaro’s skillful direction, the stupendous work of Choreographer Danny Herman and Associate Choreographer Rocker Versastique, and the masterful cues of Lighting Designer Forrest Trimble, Hair’s choreography and physical presentations are utterly dazzling, shall we say, gateway drugs to the rest of the wild ride that is the meat of the show. 

And the rest of the show truly is a wild, synesthesiac, musical decoupage that is endowed with a phenomenally stacked cast that elevates the material tremendously. As we follow the literal and emotional journeys of the peace’n’love’n’drugs-infatuated “tribe” staring down the barrel of the Vietnam War’s gun, we are introduced to lithe, self-professed “psychedelic teddy-bear”

We’re all “Going Down”

Berger (Adam Fladd), hyper-sensitive and faux-British Claude (Ashton Guthrie), goofy and horny Woof (Micah Stanek), devoted Civil Rights crusader Hud (Brady D. Patsy), defacto-Aphrodite Sallie (Whitney Noelle), and their impassioned, free-spirited, anti-establishment friends Jeanie (Mandie Russak), Dionne (Myah Davis), Crissy (Liron Blumental) and Hubert (Victor Aponte).

The “tribe” vividly expresses the many facets of their sexual liberation and hallucinogenic-enhanced desires (through songs like “Donna,” “The Bed,” and the divinely carnal “Sodomy”), their profound politcal and social dismay (the stirring race-critique “Colored Spade,” “Initials (LBJ),” “Air” and “Black Boys”/”White Boys”), and general loathing of the systems and institutions their forced to participate in (“Going Down,” “Don’t Put it Down”). This is sort of the heart of the story’s trajectory, playing like a very pointedly-toned album, but the cast’s robust investment and portrayal of the material makes even the most nonsensical moments of HAIR deeply enjoyable. 

As our central protagonist Claude, Ashton Guthrie is an absolute joy, deftly expressing Claude’s youthful vulnerability and ambivalence that propels him towards a devastatingly fateful choice. Brady Patsy is, per usual, stalwart and electrifying, and his Hud is wonderfully commanding. PMT regular Adam Fladd is uncontainable in the most thrilling way as Berger, making an often profoundly unlikeable character impossible to avert attention and affection from. 

Shelia rallies the tribe

And though the gross disparity in emotional labor and various abuses that were relentlessly dealt to the women of the counterculture movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s aren’t made explicitly clear in HAIR, PMT’s production, and the women of HAIR do a surprisingly striking job of indicating these issues. Whitney Noelle, Myah Davis and Mandie Russak  are not only vocal powerhouses, but powerfully evocative in their portrayals of Sheila, Dionne and Jeanie, respectively. Furthermore, the entirety of the “tribe” functions as a finely-tuned machine, delivering pitch-perfect, fastidiously-performed songs at a relentless pace. Oh, and if you’re in need of some nascent feminist semiotic theory, look no further than Joe York’s absurdist portrayal of Margaret Mead in which York is doing what York does best–stealing every scene he’s in and redefining ludicrous.

The “trippiness” of HAIR escalates to unfathomable reaches of logic in the second act, but the cutting, stark poignancy of the finale–especially in the hands of such a gifted cast–is bar none. HAIR might not always make pristine sense, but PMT has created a musical that’s a categorically far out, utterly blissful two hour Experience (with a capital E, because it’s just that groovy, man). 

HAIR runs through Feb. 2 as part of PMT’s Rediscover Theater Classic Season, at Gargaro Theatre in the West End. For tickets and other information, visit their site.

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