“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Words so familiar to most and that summed up an entire nation are still just as powerful today as they were 45 years ago when we first heard them. HAIR, the groundbreaking musical of the 60s is still relevant, making waves and spreading its message of “peace, love and happiness” today at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ. The grandfather of rock musicals, HAIR is shaking things up in the quiet little South Jersey town making radical choices and calling for racial equality and sexual freedom.
HAIR made its initial debut off-Broadway in 1967 moving to Broadway in 1968. In a time of war, HAIR made a statement as it followed a “tribe” of hippies committed to peace, anti-establishment and free love. The show was a pioneer of musical theatre with a much stronger emphasis on music and ideas than a plot or storyline. With its rock styling and almost completely sung through script, it forged a new genre of musical theatre and created what is known today as a “rock musical” paving the path for shows such as GODSPELL, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and RENT. In a country torn by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, HAIR took a bold stand and celebrated the hippie culture, drugs, sexuality, interracial relationships and draft dodging.
45 years later so many of these topics are still relevant. While we no longer have a draft, we are a country at war and have been so for over ten years. Within the last few months we have suffered terrorist attacks on our own soil in the Boston Marathon Bombings and have been completely distraught as a nation witnessing children brutally murdered in Newtown, CT. We have yet to truly experience racial equality and only nine States have legalized same sex marriages. Marijuana is still illegal, though most Americans support legalization and almost 75% believe the government spends too much money trying to keep it illegal. The US has tallied over 12,000 American deaths in the War on Terrorism. So the questions raised by HAIR almost half a century ago are still extremely valid today.
The Eagle Theatre’s production makes some bold choices as they revitalize this gem of American Musical Theatre. While still set in the 1960s, the audience can’t help but relate the issues with our country’s current situation. Jenna Bitow opens the show as Dionne with her commanding voice and call to action with “Aquarius.” The large cast or “tribe” of twenty was vocally impressive and cohesive as a group. The tribe’s chemistry and vocal prowess were stellar making the tribe itself the true star of the show. The cast was very large at 20 for such a small space making the staging and choreography a challenge as it often felt very crowded on stage. However, the vocal strength of the tribe more than compensated for the issues.
Director Ted Wioncek III held true to the original script and presented the Act I finale as scripted with full body nudity from the entire cast. What a risky and daring choice for such a quiet little corner of South Jersey. The scene was tastefully, but boldly presented and the cast seemed to draw strength from each other as they posed the question “Where Do I Go?”
The Eagle Theatre also did not hold back on the concept of drug usage as they pumped in a very strong synthetic marijuana scent which many audience members around me were completely convinced was authentic. In this little theatre, the audience was truly captivated and entranced as they were enticed to suspend all disbelief and join in for the trip. The fourth wall was dropped countless times and the tribe descended upon the audience pulling us into their world culminating in the virtual “Be In” onstage as the finale.
A few performances dictate mentioning. AJ Mendini was absolutely stellar as the conflicted Claude who struggled with the choice of following his personal beliefs and ignoring his draft notification and living up to the expectations of his parents and society. Mendini captured the audience at the top of Act I and took them along for his journey throughout the finale. The vocals were outstanding and I found myself continually waiting eagerly for his next song. David Mooney was hilarious as the flashing cross dresser Margaret Mead. Frankie Rowles was courageous and committed to the irreverent free-spirit of Berger, shocking the audience in the second number “Donna” with his open sexuality and preparing them for the ride that was to come. Finally, Rachel Pinkstone-Marx delivered a heart wrenching and vocally outstanding performance of “Easy to Be Hard” as the political activist stuck in a love triangle of Claude loves Sheila who loves Berger who loves himself along with everyone and maybe even Claude, too.
HAIR is a rarely produced gem of American Musical Theatre history. The Eagle Theatre has truly done this piece justice with its courageous and bold choices. It is a rare opportunity and one I believe any theatre enthusiast will not want to miss. WARNING: This production includes full nudity, explicit sexual overtones and strong language.
Book & Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Ted Wioncek III
Musical Direction by Tom Abruzzo
April 19-May 11, 2013
The Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton, NJ 08037