Hair, as a show, even at its best moments, is incoherent. But with the right director, the musical rises above its flaws to become an immersive experience, a fantastic trip back to the Vietnam War and an age of counterculture.
Unfortunately, Adam Shankman, who directed the star-studded cast of this past weekend’s production at the Hollywood Bowl, is not the right director. Granted, he wasn’t responsible for all of the production’s faults (including, most notably, the difficult layout of the massive Bowl, the rain on Saturday night, and some terrible sound problems), but this production of Hair seemed to get more wrong than it gets right.
The musical, which premiered in 1967 and had a Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway in 2009, follows Claude Bukowski (Hunter Parrish), a young man who’s trying to figure out what he wants from life, his friends Sheila (Kristen Bell) and Berger (Benjamin Walker), and the rest of the “tribe” with which they associate. This incarnation is mostly similar to the Broadway revival version, with bits of the original book by Jim Rado and Gerome Ragni along with some new additions by Rado.
The three leads all do great work. Parrish particularly stands out towards the end of the show, giving the audience a glimpse at the true cost of the clarity Claude eventually achieves. Bell and Walker also deserve commendation for their ability to make sense of the nonsense they are often charged with delivering (see: 80 percent of the lyrics to “Good Morning Starshine,” any of Berger’s rambling monologues). All three have great voices, though it’s sadly clear that their vocal chords are tired, most likely as a result of the show’s rushed rehearsal process.
This production of Hair was rehearsed and staged over the span of ten days, and it shows. Some of the actors don’t have their scenes memorized, some of the singing isn’t quite on the right pitches, the timing is often off in both scenes and songs, and there’s no real sense of unity amongst the tribe. Even with a star-studded cast like this one, the magic of Hair comes from the power of the tribe, and the overwhelming sense of love that they provide for each other and the audience. Unfortunately, whatever energy this tribe is sending out dissipates over the first few rows of the Bowl, never reaching the majority of the viewers.
Perhaps this is because the show is so draining to perform. Even staged calmly, Hair is a tough show to do, zipping along from one song to another with minimal downtime and few chances for the actors to leave the stage and relax. When Shankman’s dance-heavy production and the extremely wide physical stage are added in to the picture, the result is actors who are constantly winded, and drop lyrics and lines of dialogue here and there.
Hair does show flashes of greatness, particularly in the moments where the cast really takes in what’s going on with the audience, instead of dashing off lame jokes that don’t land, or when the focus shifts to the rest of the tribe. If only the rest of the show could get on that level.
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