Concert Hall, October 3
When Hair first hit Kings Cross in June, 1969, it gave the mainstream a glimpse behind the curtains of a counter-culture already nascent in Sydney. For the hippies, themselves, it was only a minor affirmation, although more immediate and real than Woodstock, half a world away. What the mainstream glimpsed, of course, were shaggy idealists who denounced war (especially the Vietnam catastrophe) and racism, championed love, sexual freedom and environmentalism, questioned materialism, flirted with Eastern spiritualism, lionised drugs and, almost above all else, worshipped music.
This show that felt like the zeitgeist of 1969 had actually first rocked New York two years earlier, and had been conceived by its prescient writers, Gerome Gagni and James Rado, as early as 1964. Together with composer Galt MacDermot they didn’t just shake up social conservatives (who, in 1969, constituted virtually all of Sydney’s population), they shook up musical theatre. The rock musical was born, paving the way not only for Jesus Christ Superstar and its successors, or for a later generation of dodgy jukebox musicals, but for a composer like Stephen Sondheim to incorporate rock as an alternative platform for particular musical numbers.
So, how does Hair stack up 50 years on? Both curiously well and dismally. Most of the hits, such as Aquarius, Hair and Good Morning Starshine, emerge as mediocrities, the exception being Let the Sun Shine In, while such less recognised songs such as I’m Black and Ain’t Got No stand up as admirably funky R&B tunes. It’s just that, with 25 songs packed into Act One, they’re infuriatingly short. This high turnover fails to disguise that the show’s been going for nearly an hour before the first flicker of a real story catches light. Act Two is stronger, especially the song-sequence conjuring up drug-induced hallucinations as wildly diverse as a drunken Ulysses S Grant, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk and the thoughts of Hamlet. The ensuing emotional jolt is still king-hit real, and still comes from nowhere.
As the world’s politics swing inexorably to the right, the timing of this revival could seem apposite, and yet we know how the 1960s change-the-world optimism soured, and, 50 years on, cynicism still trumps idealism. Nor can the sheer scale of the revolution that Hair originally represented be recaptured. West Side Story actually seems more revolutionary 60 years on than this does after 50.
Nonetheless this is a good shot at the show, partly riding on Hugh Sheridan’s buzzing energy as Berger. He’s a fearless performer who brings a truckload of chutzpah to the party. Paulini makes a vocal mark as Dionne, without convincing as an actor, while Prinnie Stevens (Sheila) is more rounded. Matthew Manahan can certainly sing (I Got Life), and he catches Claude’s saintly ethereality, without quite seeming a sufficient foil for Sheridan.
Notable performances among the members of the Tribe come from the imposing Harris M Turner (Hud), Callan Purcell (Woof), Angelique Cassimatis (Jeannie) and Monique Salle (both Suzannah and Claude’s curler-wearing, Flushing-accented mom).
Director Cameron Menzies and choreographer Amy Campbell have ensured the show is sufficiently energised, without contaminating it with the sort of Broadway slickness that would kill it stone dead, and they have brilliantly staged the aforementioned emotional jolt. The cast enthusiastically darts, clambers and wafts about Adam Gardnir’s scaffolding set, beneath which bassist Tina Harris leads a band that makes MacDermot’s best music sound suitably timeless – probably more so than the show and its concerns.