Ain’t Got No

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Zach Kenney and Sky Seals - HI was in Portland last year for the first time and when I got back to Chicago some of my friends who’ve never been to the city asked, “Were there a lot of hippies?”  I guess they were asking about those tie-dye-shirt-wearing, patchouli-oil-smelling, peace-sign –flashing bearded men and frizzy-haired women who will talk to anyone in sight about Greenpeace, veganism, pot, and the pleasure of strumming guitars off-key in street corners (for the record there were more “hipsters” than “hippies” in Portland, but that’s subject matter for another blog post).  Pop culture is rife with images of the hippie stereotype, and much of it were either appropriated from or encouraged by the Broadway musical Hair and its famous catalogue of eccentric, dippy, off-kilter, “make love-not war” songs, permanently enshrined in our collective memory by the frequent cable reruns of the Milos Forman film version, numerous community theater productions, and Diane Paulus’ recent Broadway revival (seen on tour in Chicago a couple of years ago).  But anyone who thinks they know Hair and its lovable, flaky hippies should check their expectations in together with their love beads at the door of American Theater Company which is currently staging a bold, stunning re-envisioning of this seminal musical.  This is not a baby boomer’s Hair- Artistic Director PJ Paparelli (who directs this production with additional direction by JR Sullivan) worked with surviving creator James Rado to reclaim the meaning and context of the show.  Putting back material (both dialogue and musical) from the original East Village production in 1968 but cut from its Public Theater premiere and subsequent Broadway transfer, re-arranging and re-orchestrating some of the songs, re-imagining the staging of some of the musical numbers, Paparelli with Rado’s guidance has staged a dark, raw, intense Hair, one of my top  shows so far of 2014, filled with young people as frightened as they are rebellious,  unprepared for the massive socio-political issues (the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, the drug counterculture)  enveloping them.   ATC’s Hair is a staggering and important theatrical achievement, truly unmissable.

I don’t want to give away too much since so much of the pleasure of this production is discovering this story, these themes, and these songs, all seemingly familiar, with a new pair of eyes thanks to sensational work all-around from the cast and creative team.  Just know that Keith Pitts’ jawdropping set design, one of the most formidable I’ve seen in Chicago (the skylight for example gives so much literal and figurative illumination to the performance of “Let the Sunshine In”) has totally reconfigured the ATC performing space, with audiences  sitting on mismatched chairs that seems to have been found in an alley dumpster and with one wall bordered by picture windows both evoking the show’s East Village loft setting and also subtly reminding the audience that the big, bad world that the Tribe is both fighting against and scared about is just right outside their communal door.   Lighting designer Brian Hoehne’s brilliantly-conceptualized lighting gives a patina of sadness and denial to the staging; the LSD tripping sequence in Act Two is performed in near-darkness with only flashlights and select floodlights illuminating the actors.  Costume designer Brittany Dee Bodley has done away with some of those clichéd outfits- you won’t see a tie-dyed shirt anywhere on the 20 person cast and 4 person band (or a loincloth on Berger, drats), instead you have urban shabby chic street wear that feels very appropriate for the 1968 setting but also don’t look like quaint artifacts for 2014.

This version of Hair has a lot more dialogue than usual, but the book (by Rado and the late Gerome Ragni) is still pretty light. There’s hardly any traditional narrative, instead it’s musical number after musical number because those articulate Rado’s and Ragni’s perspectives on the hippie movement’s purpose, advocacy, and fears.  Paparelli embraces this impressionistic quality in the book, and his direction is simply astounding- the sense of place is intentionally vague (we know we’re in an East Village loft but some scenes like Berger’s school expulsion is set somewhere else); the immersive staging is meticulously crafted- sitting in the front row you will have actors jumping, slithering, and boogeying all around you (and if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll find a white cake thrown at your feet as well);  musical numbers are performed all over the intimate space, including, brazenly, a dark corner of the theater where every audience member has to crane their necks.  Paparelli tones down the broadness and eliminates all the cheesiness sometimes associated with the musical (“Ain’t Got No” is performed sweetly yet fiercely, not like the hoedown it was in the Broadway revival). And he restages some of the pivotal moments with major cojones – the first act showstopper is not the expected ensemble full-frontal nudity, but frighteningly realistic violence.  “Let the Sunshine In” is not a trippy invitation to the audience to rock and party with the flower children, instead it is an anguished lament for the generation of young Americans killed in the Vietnam War (and the cast sings this famous song with their guts and despair in full exposed glory).   Austin Cook’s musical direction and orchestration of  Galt MacDermot’s original music matches and complements Paparelli’s ambitious vision -“Aquarius”, for one, is hypnotically and mellifluously arranged (so unlike the gay bar remix versions we’re accustomed to) to better introduce us to the tribal culture of, well, this tribe.

And this tribe just blows the doors, roof, and metal girders off the ATC building. This Hair is perfectly cast but major props must be given to Mary Hollis Inboden (whom I have loved in many The New Colony shows) who gives earth mother Jeannie a palpable wistfulness, Camille Robinson who gives a ferocious edge to Dionne (and sings the hell out of all her solo numbers); and Sky Seal’s seductive, petulant take on the bi-(or poly?) sexual Berger. The heart of any Hair production is Claude, the middle-class Flushing teenager who wants to burn his draft card:  the truly beautiful Zach Kenney (who has impressed in other recent Chicago plays) gives the performance of the show as Claude, imbuing him both with the gentleness usually associated with the role, but also the deep-seated confusion and melancholy that makes the ending so much more cuttingly tragic.  And man does he throw everything he has into this role – jumping, somersaulting, singing a capella; he does everything other than lay tile.  Which is consistent with the impressive, full-on spirit of commitment that this show has:  burrowing back to its provenance and sharing with a new generation of theatergoers the reason why this is one of the most iconic pieces of American musical theater.

Run. No really, run to American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., where you can see Hair until June 29. I guarantee you will find it one of your most rewarding theater experiences. I did, and so did original Broadway cast member and musical theater legend Ben Vereen who participated in the rousing standing ovation the audience gave the cast on the performance I attended.

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