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Short North Stage’s ‘Hair’ – An Exuberant Period Piece

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Short North Stage’s ‘Hair’ – An Exuberant Period PieceJoe Joseph as Berger, left to right, rejoices with Max Meyers as Claude in the glory of hippie life in the Short North Stage production of “Hair.” Photo by Adam Zeek.
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Short North Stage pulls out all the stops for their 50th Anniversary production of the groundbreaking Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, music by Galt MacDermot with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, directed, choreographed, and costume designed by Edward Carignan.

Carignan’s Hair is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and the ears and a balm to the soul for anyone who loved the hippie movement as either participant or enthusiast. For those of us less enamored of – or even fatigued by – the ‘60s, it holds terrific performances of some songs that stand the test of time and some remarkable staging.

To call Hair light on plot is an immense understatement. It’s hard not to notice how thin the characters are – Claude (Max Meyers) and Berger (Joe Joseph) are recognizable names because of how often characters say their names – and how much of the book and lyrics are a buzzword-salad. It tries to hit every issue and aspect of young people in the late ‘60s by skipping like a stone, glancing off but never digging deep or connecting.

Tribe members Sydney Arterbridge, left to right, Jeff Fouch and Shauna Davis dance in celebration in the Short North Stage production of “Hair.” Photo credit: Adam Zeek.

Tribe members Sydney Arterbridge, left to right, Jeff Fouch and Shauna Davis dance in celebration in the Short North Stage production of “Hair.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

The tragedy of Meyers’ Claude dying in Vietnam, and Joseph’s Berger weeping over him, requires the audience to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Deep commitment by the actors goes a long way making that, or the famous sequence of the cast removing all their clothes and standing behind Claude holding hands, as moving as they are in this production.

Carignan remembers that youth is a verb; the greatest asset here. He and his cast light a fire inside sometimes-hollow material with an intense, vibrant, in-your-face production. Director and cast understand the desperate need for finding a tribe, especially when one is young. The cast nails that ineffable chemistry of feeling like a family.

For Hair, Carignan deploys strategies we’ve seen in earlier plays, including characters racing up and down the aisle, a multi-tiered set, and seats on part of the stage, with fresh aplomb and vigor. Removing a row of standard theater seats for ramps helps this up-close engagement. Both his costumes and his choreography embrace the past but avoid being beholden to it. The costumes and Ray Zupp’s marvelous set have a whiff of the post-apocalyptic, engaging the emotional reality of the characters beyond the words of the play.

The other ace in hand here is the unstoppable catchiness of Galt MacDermot’s score. There’s a reason this was the last Broadway musical to spawn multiple massive pop standards. Under the musical direction of Zac Delmonte, the six-piece band has enough grooving chug and fiery power to drive those tunes home, and the cast is more than up for the challenge.

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Max Meyers as Claude and Melissa Hall as Sheila, at center, lead the Tribe in the song “The Bed,” a love-making ritual in the Short North Stage production of “Hair.” Photo by Adam Zeek.

Lisa Glover’s ferocious lead on “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” and the ensemble harmonies remind the audience what great songs these are. Melissa Hall shines on “I Believe in Love” and a tender read of “Easy to Be Hard.” Meyers breaks hearts for miles on “Where Do I Go” and he and Berger sum up all the dancing-at-the-end-of-the-world promise of the show when they lead the cast in the title number.

This may be a slog for someone with no interest in the ‘60s. When momentum flags, it’s two-and-a-half hours (with intermission) of tedious baby-boomer clichés and slogan-shouting. But for anyone who’s ever had a set of love beads or worn out a 5th Dimension 45, there are many reminders the reasons Hair endured 50 years.

Hair runs through April 29 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.

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