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The Arts
July 18-24, 2007

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Photograph by Dixie Sheridan
Ecstasy: Berger (Sammy Rodriguez) rises above the hippie mosh pit in 'Hair.'

Tribal Gestures

Stagelight Productions brings back the '60s in musical 'Hair'

By Marianne Messina

CONSIDERED "shocking" by many theatergoers of the day, Hair opened on Broadway between the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Its four-year run continued through the shooting deaths of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State, massive war protests and a conservative backlash (see the "be glad he's dead" hate mail written to the mother of a Kent State victim,

And judging from Stagelight Productions' Hair, the show still captures the energy of those war-fueled, titanic clashes of vision. Inevitably, the main character, Claude (Brennan Whitaker), comes to symbolize a sacrificial lamb as he is called up by the draft and spends the rest of the plot in the long version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

Book/lyrics writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni provide Claude with saintly lines like "I can perform miracles. That's all I want to do on this Earth." And the production offers plenty of cruciform visuals, including the parting image from Berger's (Sammy Rodriguez) Native American spirit dance.

Director Jon Rosen shows perceptive casting in Whitaker. Wearing jeans slung low enough to reveal a tattoo on his pelvic belly, Whitaker calls up a raw, ecce homo quality that resonates in songs like "I Got Life" (his response to the existential questions of his parents). In thick, long wig, Whitaker's earthiness maximizes the tension between warm body and cold numeral, singing "human being number 1-0-0 ..."

The woody, barn-style staging at Theater on San Pedro Square and the often-subdued lighting capitalize on this key element of earthiness. Rado and Ragni, who draw as heavily on iconography (flags and flowers) as on iconoclasm (nuns with guns), contrast the airy/earthy hippie culture to Sun imagery and war gods.

In one such pairing, Stagelight uses pantomime and powerful gunshots to convey a clear indictment of war as engendering endless cycles of retribution. In the contrasting scene that follows, Ana Maria Escobar and Lonnique Genelle (playing Dionne) wear flowers in their hair and sing the airy-fairy "What a Piece of Work Is Man" (an audience favorite). It is this contrast that gives the song "Good Morning, Starshine" ("the Earth says hello") its poignancy as it weaves a vision of mutual exchange rather than opposition. By the time protesters are picketing to save Claude from the draft, their urgency feels so much like self-preservation that it dares even the most politically unsympathetic to resist the rallying "Hell no, we won't go."

In spite of Hair's sexual bravado, people seem to respond to a sense of innocence. Stagelight achieves this paradox best when tribesmen ceremoniously carry out a mattress, like a tabernacle (or a pall), and chant, "O, the bed." Simulating all the adult things you can do in a bed, tribe members seem more like kids in an inflatable bounce house.

Backed by simple batik and tie-dye hangings, the ever-present ensemble of 20-plus, hardworking tribe members are helped by an open stage and a versatile live band playing Galt MacDermot's pop-rock score.

But this production doesn't win hearts with Grammy-level singing or Twyla Tharp dancing. Its strength lies in clarifying an era before '80s slick and sheen, before "handlers" and "spin," when flower power presumed to go up against a steely war machine. It comes across in the infamous nude scene among the not so airbrushed bodies. We see tragic vulnerability, and a reminder of the fierceness it takes simply to be as you are. Subtract fashion and language, and the show still sends you home in the throes of some ineffable feeling. At its worst, it parades embarrassing love-in faddishness and adolescent parent-baiting, but in its finer moments it can give you goose bumps.

Hair, presented by Stagelight Productions, plays Wednesday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm at Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 N. San Pedro St., San Jose. (The show also runs Aug. 9–24 at the Historic Hoover Theatre in San Jose.) Tickets are $15–30. (800.838.3006)

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