The musical ‘Hair’ packs a mighty punch, fifty years after its debut

Hair | His Majesty’s Theatre | Until 1st September | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, it’s the show inspired by counter-culture movement with its hippy embracing soundtrack that’s filled with references to the age of Aquarius, free love, homosexuality, drug taking, racism and flower power.

This year the musical is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its first Australian performances. Half a century after its debut, Hair packs a mighty emotional punch, a theatrical knockout.

Assembled for this new staging is Packed to the Rafters star Hugh Sheridan and Australian Idol alumni Paulini. Sheridan players George Berger the informal leader of a group of ragtag youngsters who live freely, love rock music, and explore the realms of consciousness. Paulini brings her powerful voice to the role of Dione, while Prinnie Stevens, most recently seen on The Voice Australia plays love/lust interest Sheila.

Stepping into the role of Claude Hooper Bukowski is WAPPA graduate Matthew Manahan who makes his mark with compelling performance. Claude’s story forms the backbone of the narrative. A free loving long haired young man surrounded by his friends and lovers, his life takes a sudden turn when he is gets his draft notice and faces the prospect of being sent to the Vietnam war.

Manahan seduces and mesmerises the audience, as we fall in love with him, and feel his emotional and moral turmoil, we are drawn to reflect on what we would do in his situation, and shudder at the thought of history repeating. Matthew Manahan’s performance is, as they would have said in the era, “outta sight”.

The stage is filled with a scaffold set, with cloth and flags hanging over, within the structure are the live musicians, and from under it’s drapings the members of the cast emerge, in their retro outfits, flared jeans, fur coats, and floral prints.

From the opening number Aquarius, we are engulfed into a soundscape of psychedelic rock with flourishes of jazz, and a health dose of pop. The run of songs quickly ticks all the boxes for controversy, there are songs about masturbation, sodomy and drug taking within the first four tunes of Donna, Sodomy, Hashish and Aquarius. 

There show has it’s fair stack of recognisable songs, including the title tune Hair, I Got No and Good Morning Starshine. The action is fast paced and we quickly move through the numbers with each cast members having a moment in the spotlight.

On opening night the sound mix on some of the larger numbers is the first half was challenging, and at times it was difficult to hear all the lyrics being sung, but on the simpler solo numbers things were much clearer.

The second half of the show is notably different to the first section as Berger gives all the members of the tribe a trip and they descend into a shared hallucination; a journey through American history. As Claude wrestles with his sense of patriotism and his values of non-violence, the story builds up to an almighty crescendo.

Hair is a musical that came out before many audience members now watching it were born, US President Richard Nixon announced the peace accord that ended the Vietnam War on the day I was born. The war, the peace protests and its surrounding culture for some will be nostalgic, for younger audience members, it’s a time from the history books.

For many of us, we’ve come to know the songs in this show through our primary school song books, and their appearances on other artists records – Nina Simone delivers the best version of I’ve Got No. If you’ve never heard these songs in the context they were created for, you should go and see the show, because while they are great tunes, the whole is mightier than the parts.

Filling out the impressive cast were Angelique Cassimatis playing Jeanie, the very camp Haris M Turner playing Hud, Callan Purcell making his debut in a musical as Woof, Stephanie Caccamo as Chrissy, and an impressive team of tribe members.

Often when we return to much loved works of the past we discover they have aged and no longer fit with our modern thinking. The domestic violence in Carousel is hard to take, and that story of a Swiss nun being sent to be a governess is all rather twee.

In other works what was a spectacle when they made their debut, pales in comparison to works that have come after. It’s hard to get excited about the giant set of Cats, or the helicopter landing in Miss Saigon, many more impressive stunts have followed in their wake.

Hair doesn’t suffer either of these challenges. It’s messages of environmentalism, anti-violence, minimalism, respect, peace, and love is incredibly relevant. Upon its debut much was made of the show’s nude scene. Scandalous for its time, half a century later it’s just a really good storytelling element, elegantly and effectively deployed.

As Hair built up to its final scene, the uplifting and ecclesiastical The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In), we were left with the cast filling the stage singing acapella. A rousing that chorus simultaneously joyous and foreboding.

It dawned on me that this song that I’d heard thousands of times in my life, on the radio and in dubious 80’s TV variety shows, was not some quasi-religious song of praise, but an anthem for life and personal accountability. A call to live life as it is happening, and make a connection with the people around you.

The final scene left me with tears flowing down my cheeks, the final refrain of the chorus echoing in my ears, and surrounded by an audience giving a standing ovation.               

Hair is playing at His Majesty’s Theatre until 1st September, tickets available from Perth Theatre Trust.

Graeme Watson

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