'Hair' gets a new 'do:

New production adds structure

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2006

The free-love rock-musical "Hair" has never had much of a linear story since it premiered in October 1967, and that's much of its point. It was anti-establishment, anti-structure and anti-musical, and its anti-plot bounced from scene to scene to reflect the hazy, desperate, scattered spirit of the times.

"If it had a story - which to be honest it hasn't - that story would be about the young disenchanted, turned on by pot, switched off by the draft, living and loving, the new products of affluence, the dispossessed dropouts," drama critic Clive Barnes said of the original off-Broadway version in the Oct. 30, 1967, issue of the New York Times.

Story or not, the play hasn't aged particularly well. It's hard to mount a production of the play that doesn't drown in nostalgia, or come off like some fuzzy documentary. The 18-year-olds of 1968 are 56 now, and today's 40-year-olds turned 1 when the play debuted.

"It's weird when your life becomes a historical era, and people are looking at you like the way we looked at our parents," said Sharon Gaiptman (Margaret Mead), who first saw the play in the early 1970s.

what: "hair."

when: runs through april 16.

where: perseverance theatre.

Perseverance Theatre Artistic Director PJ Paparelli and James Rado, who co-wrote the original 1967 play with the late Gerome Ragni, have tried to add structure with Perseverance's current production of the play. The cast and crew spent most of opening weekend ironing out the production. Technical glitches stopped the play twice Friday night, and Saturday afternoon the cast went back into rehearsals. They added a monologue to Act I, removed part of Claude's trip from Act II and adjusted some of the staging. Three days before the opening, "Hashish," one of the classic songs, was moved from Act I to Act II.

All of the dialogue between Berger, Sheila and Claude - the three Tribe leaders involved in a complex, ambiguous love triangle - has been invented or re-added from the original off-Broadway script. Sheila brushes Claude off for most of the play, and the new text insinuates that Claude and Berger may have an interest in being more than friends.

Paparelli and Rado also inserted a framing device at the beginning and end of the play. At the start, an aging Berger rummages around a warehouse with a flashlight, looking for a trunk. He begins to hear the opening strains of "Aquarius," and the play is introduced as a flashback.

"It was really about the music," Paparelli said. "They were just trying to be anti-musical at the time. They didn't really care about a lot of character development and a lot of story. But I think the original was just so confusing."

The production includes a live five-piece band - Sam Burrous (guitar), Alex Goese (trumpet), Dale McFarlin (drums), David Paul (keyboards) and Simon Taylor (bass). Due to the small size of the stage, they're completely concealed behind the set's large center wall.

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"The problem in our theater is there's nowhere to put them where musically they won't overpower the performers," Paparelli said. "If you put them under the stage, you're going to be even more muffled. If you leave them completely exposed, there's no way of controlling the drums. What we tried to do was keep them in the space itself and get their natural sound to come through but also somewhat control it."

The costume department has a chance to indulge itself during the go-go rave-up "Manchester, England," the over-the-top sexy odes "Black Boys" and "White Boys;" and Claude's stylistically dazzling Act II hallucination. For most of the play, The Tribe is dressed relatively sharply. In some versions, they're uniformly hippie-fied, dressed practically in rags.

"We didn't want a huge freak show," Paparelli said. "We didn't want to create a look like the Las Vegas hippies."

Paparelli and Rado are far from the first to tinker with the play. Many versions have come and gone. Last fall, the Gate Theatre in London updated the story to place it in context of the Gulf War. It sold out, but Rado was disappointed with the way it turned out.

Some are disappointed that the story has been changed at all. Producer Michael Butler saw the original off-Broadway production of "Hair" in 1967 at the Shakespeare Public Theater. He and co-producer Joseph Papp moved the play to the Cheetah disco, on Broadway between 45th and 46th streets. Butler later secured a Broadway venue, the Biltmore Theatre.

"First, let me say that I am very fond of Jim Rado," Butler said, in an e-mail. "I was the one who insisted that he play Claude. I have respected his continued efforts on 'Rainbow.' I particularly like the music and think his lyrics are superb.

"My plea is that James Rado leave it alone in its pure state and allow us to help him in anyway to carry his message on," he said. "He does not need to change what a wonderful accomplishment he made to our world.

"Why not change the name of this new show?" he said. "It is not 'Hair' as the thousands of those who worked on it and the millions who have seen it. This is the first time I have really felt I have to be open to making comment to tampering with one of the greatest works ever presented on the musical stage, anytime, anywhere."

Around the world, at least 25 versions of the play have run or been planned in the first nine months of 2006, according to the Hair Online Archives. Most put their own spin on the story.

"I feel like Hair is always going to have this sense of unstructuredness about it," Paparelli said. "It's never going to be the kind of show that feels like a standard musical. They were trying to break out of that mold. So I think you always feel a little rough around the edges. I feel good about it and I certainly feel like I'm done with my end, which was getting as much of the original story back into the script.

"With one of the play's authors gone, it's very hard to make a huge overhaul to the piece," he said. "In a way, it would totally take away its identity. Jim felt respectful of (Ragni). There were certain things we would have changed, that we didn't out of respect to him."

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