Unkind Cut

Washington U. takes a dim view of Hair

Oct 12, 2005 at 4:00 am
So let's begin with the nude scene. The final moment of Act One in Hair, the self-proclaimed "love-rock musical" currently being staged by the Washington University Performing Arts Department, is one of the legendary moments in American musical theater, as celebrated, as anticipated -- and as germane to the action -- as "Shall We Dance?" in The King and I or "Seventy-Six Trombones" in The Music Man.

Despite the attendant voyeurism the scene provokes, as originally conceived there was nothing gratuitous in its brazen attempt to rediscover sensation. When Hair assaulted Broadway in April 1968 as an antidote to "a dying nation," nearly 540,000 American troops were serving in Vietnam. Those were tumultuous times. War policy was fiercely argued in the streets. Hair -- with its insistence on shocking viewers -- dragged a formulaic and mostly irrelevant Broadway theater into the fray. Even though the stage lights were dimmed for the nude scene, that moment was a bold, in-your-face statement from young people that said, "Here we are. Take a good look at us, because we're not going away." Indeed, only four weeks prior to Hair's Broadway opening, war protests had forced President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for re-election.

Nearly four decades later, what kind of a nude scene do we get at Washington U.? We get a dark, murky mess that cheats the play and cheats the audience -- and cheats the actors -- for it suggests that the kids are ashamed of their bodies and have nothing to say. And if they have nothing to say, then why are they doing the show to begin with? Granted, in 2005 America is no longer a dying nation; it's merely comatose. But what do college kids stand for today? And who is so hell-bent on protecting their innocence? Last October a Wash. U. student stood alone on that same Edison Theatre stage in The Awakening and courageously exposed herself in one of the most compelling moments that St. Louis theater has seen in recent memory. College students don't need to be protected from anything.

Unfortunately, this lame nude scene -- brief though it is -- is emblematic of the entire evening. What begins as quaint nostalgia soon becomes disembodied and lethargic. It's hard to theorize why the show has gone so wildly askew -- but not the least of its many problems is the playing space. The Edison is a dead zone that sucks up energy and sound. Ironically, Wash. U. was the site of a highly successful Hair only five years ago. But New Line Theatre mounted its exuberant production in the smaller Hotchner Theater rather than the Edison. The following summer New Line revived Hair at the ArtLoft, another confined playing space that allowed for an engaging intimacy between performer and viewer. But in the Edison there is no rapport between actor and audience.

Nor does the choreography by Christine Knoblauch-O'Neal help matters. There's a lot of staged spontaneity, all strutting legs and swinging arms. But it's aimlessly conventional movement better suited to the teens in Bye Bye Birdie than to the hippies in Hair.

Among the large student cast, Carolina Reiter does well with two of the better-known songs, "Easy to Be Hard" and "Good Morning Starshine." Elizabeth Birkenmeier sings "Air," an ode to air pollution, in a refreshingly breezy manner. Best of all is Kaylin Boosalis, who has no specific role. She's a member of the hippie tribe, or chorus. But Boosalis (easy to spot; she's wearing a backless brown vest and tan jeans) explodes with the kind of infectiously rambunctious energy that suggests she's an authentic flower child born 40 years too late.

There's no question that Hair is tough to pull off. Its structure is formless; its libretto is paper-thin; the lyrics are often little more than laundry lists. When the best lyrics come from Act Two of Hamlet ("I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth"), you know you're facing an uphill battle. But Shakespeare provides the answer to what is amiss here. For at its core, this sterile Hair is mirthless. And a Hair shorn of mirth makes for a painfully long trip.