Review: Hair at Bay Street Theatre

Updated August 8, 2019 at 11:28 a.m.

ONE OF the great and unique things about the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” Hair is that it is no polished, precious retrospective of the ‘60s written for a nostalgic, aging audience.

Hair was essentially written just prior to the year in which it's set — 1968 – and reflects that sense of almost journalistic immediacy, improvisation, and highly creative chaos.

Bay Street Theatre nails this sensibility in their joyous, raucous, moving, and very satisfying performance of Hair, which stays as true to the original intent of the show as possible.

(Speaking of which: I can neither confirm nor deny that there is full or partial nudity in this performance – let’s just say that this production stays true to the original directing decisions intended for the play!)

The plot is thin and intended to be so – Claude (a charismatic and perfectly cast Chris Stanley) openly struggles with whether or not to honor his recent draft notice sending him to Vietnam.

That’s about it for plot, as the main point of the show is to lovingly present the entire hippie ethos and experience from A-Z, with insight, satire, sarcasm, humor, and of course song.

And there are a lot of songs! In this show, dialogue always gives way to lyrics, as the assembled “Tribe” of young peaceniks gives continuous musical homage to their passions (getting high, social equality, protesting the war, race relations, and free love) and their fears (getting drafted, conformity, racism, mean people).

Many people will recognize the several radio hits spawned by Hair such as "Age of Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine," and the title song.

But that’s just the beginning, as the Tribe has a song for just about everything in their lives, from marijuana to interracial sex.

Since the cast for the most part portrays a bunch of kids who wouldn’t be old enough to drink today, there is no need for them all to be extraordinarily accomplished, professional singers.

The point is the youthful delivery, and of course the lyrics — a mix of sardonic socio-political observation and the kind of non-ironic, heartfelt poetry fashionable at the time but which might occasionally sound corny to modern ears jaded from internet-style deadpan humor.

Some of the tunes, however, are showstoppers, and require a showstopper to deliver the goods. In Hair, that role falls to the amazing Cecilia Tran Arango, a familiar sight and sound on local stages.

As Sheila, she brings the house down on several numbers, including the well-known “Easy To Be Hard,” during which she is onstage completely alone — the only time during the show that a member of The Tribe is by themselves. This further brings home the song’s impact of trying to find intimacy in a group of people who often talk more about compassion than they actually practice it.

Arango’s vocal range is simply stunning, and as if there weren’t enough good things to say about this show, her performance is worth the cost of admission in and of itself.

That isn’t to slight anyone else in the large and very diverse cast. Travis Harold Coles has a blast playing Berger, who you might call Sam to Claude’s Frodo. Thomas Houston brings his extensive comedic abilities into play as Hud. Teresa-Michelle Walker is delightful as Jeannie.

I could go on and on – suffice it to say that this large cast, under the direction of Jeffrey DeVincent, assistant director JinHi Soucy Rand, and music director Brandon Kaufman, cracked the code on how to throw themselves with abandon into this relentless series of song and dance numbers, without ever seeming to tire nor to seem anxious to get it all over with and move on to the next song.

I especially valued how the cast, in the famous, surging "Let the Sunshine In" finale, sings those words not as a vague hippie-dippie anthem, but almost more as an urgent demand.

The cozy, quirky upstairs space at Club One is perfect for this show, where some cast members spend almost as much time singing in the aisles and in the wings as they do onstage.

The diversity of the cast is also a wonderful thing to behold, and not always a given in Savannah theatre productions. This diversity not only expressly serves the message and intent of the show itself – a huge portion of which is about fighting racism — but has a unifying aspect that goes beyond the words of the script.

Speaking of the script: As I said, this show was written in the late ‘60s, about issues that plagued that time as well as our own. The language is frank and uses words which have been more or less completely banned from utterance or display in our current era.

In Hair, the words are used not to convey support of racism but – as with other American classics such as Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird – are of course intended to expose and fight racism.

While I cynically fear that may be too much nuance for some audience members in the year 2019 to handle, I commend the directors for not watering down the production and blunting the impact of its message – the need for the ideals of the Age of Aquarius (compassion, understanding, community) to overcome war, injustice, and racism.

I had forgotten about Hair's many references to the struggle for Native American civil rights, which were much more of a concern for activists in the '60s than today, unfortunately.

On a much lesser note, another thing I particularly enjoyed was the strict banning of all cellphone use – photos, video, or texting – during the show.

While ostensibly done to preserve modesty of cast members during the less-clothed portions of the show, it was frankly liberating to know that for several hours on a Friday night, I had to somehow survive without looking at my phone every 30 seconds!

Hair continues at Bay Street Theatre, upstairs at Club One, through Aug. 18.

Published August 3, 2019 at 10:46 a.m.

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