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Theater review: Hair  

Theatre Charlotte presents shaggy version of rock classic

When it first became popular in 1967, as an off-Broadway phenomenon and an LP, Hair wasn't embraced by teenagers or their stoner elders as representing them. Too commercial — products, after all. So the subsequent Top 40 hits covered by the 5th Dimension, the Cowsills and Oliver only multiplied the musical's mercenary taint. No, we would soon brand ourselves as the Woodstock Generation, largely because this phenomenon was taken over by the audience in an explosion of free love and free admission.

Yet as the decades roll by, Hair has developed a widespread acceptance as a preeminent representation of the '60s. Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado — the original onstage protagonists — with music by Galt MacDermott, this "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" didn't acquire its edgy nudity and antiwar thrust until the show transitioned from its original Public Theatre run to the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway.

Hair wasn't merely the first rock score to hit Broadway. Its loosey-goosey structure paved the way for such famously inchoate musicals as Godspell and Cats. Despite the fact that it equally riled rockers and traditionalists, it retains a solid cultural significance.

In the current revival at Theatre Charlotte, we can experience the "tribal" concept as freshly as the day it was minted. What we see, before the lights come up, is an ensemble that doesn't need to explain who they are or why they're there. Forget the folksy formality and painstaking introductions of "Tradition" in Fiddler on the Roof (probably the most genuinely tribal musical ever) — it's the "age of Aquarius," and let's get on with it.

We never learn how Dionne fits into the tribe, but with Dani Burke singing her lead vocal on "Aquarius," it's never a matter of concern. There's enough electricity in that voice to make the evening worthwhile no matter how many short circuits might ensue.

And where are we? Lovers of funky ambiguity will no doubt enjoy the set design by Chris Timmons, which seems to borrow a considerable quantity of corrugated aluminum left over from the CAST production of Angels in America while it splays a fine band led by Ryan Deal across five different locations, including three that are above the action. So we could be indoors in an urban loft, outdoors near a loading dock, or camping out in a recording studio.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Will Swenson in the 2009 Broadway revival as George Berger, the obstreperous leader of the pack who refuses haircuts and growing up as devoutly as Peter Pan — until I saw his infectious spontaneity replicated by Jordan Ellis. Without Swenson's sheer size, Ellis cannot assault the audience with his bestiality quite as forcefully as he mingles among us, and the jungle that resides over his scalp is a wig rather than the authentic foliage. Yet there's no mistaking the hippie spontaneity or the streetwise self-assurance of him whenever Berger takes command.

Ellis's insouciance is all the more remarkable in the face of Kristian Paul Andrewson's evident discomfort as Berger's bud, Claude Bukowski. Andrewson has the perfect inward, tormented look for the tragic hero modeled after Rado, his wig fits fairly convincingly, and he was such an auspicious find two summers ago in Davidson playing the romantic lead in Crazy for You. Here he couldn't seem to decide whether he wanted to croon or shout, and the right key persistently eluded him.

The mikes aren't robust, Deal is always behind him, and Andrewson's voice may have been wrecked in the hectic lead-up to opening night. So I'm hoping Andrewson will return to his previous form during the second week after he has given his larynx a rest. Otherwise, he'll continue to make the undistinguished performances by Chase Law as Berger's girlfriend Sheila and Steven James as Woof look comparatively good.

Elders in the cast, Dan Brunson and Stephanie Di Paolo, deftly follow the "get-a-job" stereotype that rock invented in the 50s at the dawn of our youth culture, but Brunson gets an opportunity to break loose from his hackneyed cantankerousness briefly when he becomes the interloper that the tribe will nickname Margaret Mead. Kayla Piscatelli gives a robust interpretation of Jeanie, the would-be Claude girlfriend who is very visibly bearing some other dude's child, and the versatile KC Roberge pops up occasionally to do a vocal as Crissy.

We might chide Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law for not casting Roberge as Sheila in what he describes as his farewell to musical directing, but his more egregious blunder is skipping over the tragic conclusion of Hair in his headlong rush to the onstage audience be-in, rocked out to "Let the Sunshine In." Throughout the evening, the full cast singing out is one of this production's treats.

The most constant treat is the hefty seven-piece band featuring Deal, two trumpets and a reed player pumping out clarinet, piccolo and sax. After fronting the 50th anniversary production of Les Miz at CP, Deal's voice would be quite an asset if we could contrive to bring it upstage. So would the talents of Mike Corrigan and Gina Stewart, who remain perched above the fray, respectively on guitar and electric bass. All are over 30 and know their proper place, but I always loved glancing up at Stewart faking it with a wig.

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