‘Hair’ shows much has changed but it’s still great to be young – Chicago Tribune
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and as a counternarrative to our present Summer of Intolerance, “Hair” has sprung up in the friendly confines of the Mercury Theater in the Southport Corridor. That’s just to the west of Rickettsville, where one can only hope for a rerun of the Age of Aquarius.
Hello again, long-haired star-shines. Welcome to when it’s never been easier to be hard.
Whether a date on the calendar offers enough justification to revive such a once-revolutionary musical is open to debate. And the question of “why this show right now?” is never definitively answered in director Brenda Didier’s new production, which certainly embraces the familiar “Hair” iconography.
But, you know, of all the many local productions of “Hair” during the last decade or so (and let’s not forget the original producer was Chicago’s own Michael Butler), I think this one is my favorite. I certainly liked this intimate (and affordable) production far more than the last Broadway revival, which was much more self-conscious than what these Chicago actors are doing with their August at the Mercury.
There are a few reasons, first and foremost being the quality of the singing.
This is an Equity show amply stocked with top-tier Chicago talent, all no doubt happy not to be stuck in some family-friendly kid’s show for the summer. If you’ve seen more than your share of be-ins, Hare Krishna riffs and flower children wandering through the aisles in faux disorientation while trying to make eye contact, what you really are looking for in your “Hair” are killer vocal takes on the famous songs.
And that is exactly what you get here. That’s a very different outcome from the last time this show was produced — in a more ambitious, but much less vocally secure, production at the American Theater Company.
For “Hair” remains a masterclass in the rewards of the audacious lyric. Take, for example, the beginning of the finale: “We starve, look at one another, short of breath/ Walking proudly in our winter coats/ Wearing smells from laboratories/ Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy/ Listening for the new told lies/ With supreme visions of lonely tunes.”
Who cares what it means? It stirs the blood and makes you believe in the power of storytelling and its capacity to motivate social change. And Liam Quealy, who plays Claude, fully understands his job. He acts the bejesus out of his numbers and, as a result, he’s vulnerable and moving.
Indeed, all of the leads here (the group includes Evan Tyrone Martin and Leryn Turlington) have embraced the need for high dramatic stakes. The terrific Michelle Lauto, who plays Sheila and really finds her way to the moral center of Didier’s production, thumps her chest in “Easy to be Hard” and really sells the emotional intensity, and sociopolitical imperative, of that song. Matthew Keffer, the fine actor who plays Berger, has a little more sardonic remove, but that’s a good thing when you’re playing Berger, who can easily be too much, especially in the opening number, “Donna,” which is not something anyone would be able to write today.
There are moments when you can see that this diverse cast, in this cautious age, isn’t quite sure what still is OK to do with every aspect of this carefree material from a world away. But they’re all smart enough to see what the piece was trying to achieve and they make it work in the here and now: The famous nudity, for example, is presented here with matter-of-fact defiance, not the usual soft-gauze impressionism. And that lends it striking power.
Like all great musicals — and for its quirks and dated tropes, “Hair” remains a remarkable work — “Hair” never feels like it is standing still, despite its perpetual marketability as a piece of nostalgia. It should never be that.
The kids of the Summer of Love say they’ve been born in age when it’s more fun than ever to be young.
Still true now, when there is so much to worry about?
Sure. Always better to have hair.
Review: “Hair, The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Sept. 17
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $30-$65 at 773-325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.