KPBS AIRDATE: August 21, 1996
What made the musical “Hair” work so well in the sixties was that it sprang from group cohesion and a melded mentality. That’s just what makes some of Diversionary’s 90s update work, too. But instead of carrying signs and screaming mottoes like “Hell no! We won’t go!” And “Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?,” the new version is all about chanting “We’re here, we’re queer; we’re fabulous, get used to it.”
Well, that is certainly a source of group cohesion. But then, you’ve got a lot of muddled ambivalence. The original “Hair” was pretty anti-American, or at least anti-government. This one starts with a puzzlingly serious hand-to-heart singing of the national anthem. Say, what? And instead of the central character Claude not knowing what to do about his draft notice at the height of the Vietnam War, this Claude is dying to enlist in the Marines.
Director/adapter Bill Poore wants it all ways. Sanitized in some ways, but still singing songs revering sex and drugs. Following the funky song, “Black Boys” with the Supremes-knockoff “White Boys” sung by all whites. Is that “mixed media”? I don’t get it. I don’t get Claude wanting to be a Marine, either, or his saying that war is justified sometimes. But I DO get the gay militance, which is no less strident in demanding peace and equality than the sixties forefathers.
So, it goes like that all evening. Some things really work and some don’t. On the plus side: Berger, or Queerberger, the organizer of this rally, engagingly played by Steve Parianos. The factions within the gay and black communities. Sticking AZT into the “Hashish” song. The chilling reinterpretation, with slides, of “What a Piece of Work is Man.” Matt Caffoni’s Tony. All three of the black guys and all of their numbers. The reenactment of Claude’s parents discovering his sexual proclivities. The full-cast “I Got Life” number. The title number done with outrageous wigs — except for Claude, who, relatively hairless, sings hairy lines that make absolutely no sense.
Other entries in the minus column: The quality of the recorded sound. The central character of Sheila, who has very little character, and the cartoonish roles of Star and Devlin. Also, unmotivated songs like “Hare Krishna” and “Three Five Zero Zero.” Weak voices even when miked. But there were strong voices, too — like those of Devlin and Karen Parker, and even young Cara Marino, though she was pretty hoarse the night I saw her.
It was a worthwhile endeavor, and a good-sized undertaking for Diversionary. The energy and enthusiasm were really infectious. And the audience ate it up.
This production does make you remember how little there really was to “Hair,” except a strong evocation of a very particular place and time and world-view. Not everything translates — either into gay and lesbian issues, or into the nineties. But stretching is always good exercise.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.