Wednesday, April 22, 2009

UWM's Hair

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The generational dynamics for a current college production of Hair are particularly odd for someone my age. There’s something distinctly strange about seeing people at least a decade younger than me playing characters from my parents’ generation at a time when they were probably less mature than I seem to think I am now. It’s kind of disorienting, but you get used to it. Opening night of UWM’s production was packed with an interesting mix of people for a UWM show . . . the usual students and suchlike were mixed with a larger than usual number of baby boomers and a few theatre professionals.

UWM’s Hair is an energetic production with a fairly large cast and fairly authentic-looking costuming. As the audience enters, classic psychedelic music plays. Lights bathe the house in gradually shifting color. There’s a splash of it on the stage as well, which features a multi-level scaffolding. After heavy amounts of atmosphere from an over-worked smoke machine, the cast enters in full, authentic-looking costume. As the show opens, we are introduced to Jud Riggins in the role of central hippie guru Berger. Riggins has a natural charisma in the role that feels like the perfect place to start the show, but the rest of the first few minutes of the show lack a certain amount of impact. Opening night may have had something to do with the first three or four songs in the show feeling a bit flat, which wouldn’t’ve been as much of a disappointment were it not for the fact that those first few songs are the most popular: Aquarius, Donna and  Sodomy all felt a bit off opening night. Once the ensemble got into the rhythm of things, the show attained an energy level that it would maintain pretty effectively through the final song. The ensemble brings an eager, innocent sense of fun to the stage which is only briefly broken by flashes of inadvertent tension. Themes of the hippie generation flit through the production precisely the way they should in Hair. In spite of a very nuanced performance, the central conflict of Matthew Belopavlovich in the role of Claude getting drafted and heading off to Viet Nam feels a bit muddled in the rush of things, but it’s difficult to imagine a production of Hair ever covering the full gravitas of Viet Nam and its effect on the generation . . . the rest of the show is just to gosh-darned fun, happy and devoid of substantial negativity that the whole Viet Nam thing never comes across with the weight it needs to have. By far the best moment in the entire production is the staging of, “Colored Spade,” which takes full advantage of black guy Hud (a dynamic Marques Causey) declaring himself President of the United States of Love. In that moment, the production chooses to make direct visual reference to President Obama. Opening night, the audience erupted into applause . . . it was a high point--a moment of genuine energy that the rest of the performance didn’t ever manage to make it back to . . .

For a musical about counter-culture, Hair  has way too much of a glossy, pop musical feel to it . . . it’s Broadway/pop culture’s perspective on how things were. . . .which is made all the more apparent in UWM’s production by the use of actual pop tunes from the era. The haunting sound of White Rabbit makes the musicals treatment of psychedelics seem shallow and childish. The quietly revolutionary rhythm of vintage Bob Dylan has a lot more political weight than anything depicted in the musical. I realize that the musical is a celebration of the culture not meant to go into great detail about the complexities of the era, but Hair has always seemed like a sanitized Disney version of the conflicts going on back then. It’s fun, though . . . and UWM does an excellent job of bringing that celebration to the stage.

Hair continues on UWM’s main stage theatre now through April 26th

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