Theater Review: ‘Hair’ Still Shines at American Theater Company

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CHICAGO – At intermission, I remarked to a fellow theater patron that the musical “Hair,” presented by the American Theater Company (ATC) of Chicago, still has a solid impact. His logical reply, “it’s hard to mess this one up.” The ATC does the classic hippie musical proud, with a raucous rendition. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

“Hair” is an American musical theater icon, filled with songs that have become embedded into the DNA of the culture. “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard.” “Good Morning Starshine” and “Let the Sunshine In” all became hits on their own, and when integrated into the “happening” – as ATC likened to call their production – elicits a gut-wrenching power. The energetic cast takes the time trip back to 1968 with no irony, and deliver their flower power with a bit of extra bloom, which made their version that much more impressive – even overcoming some pacing issues. “Hair” is a celebration and a cautionary tale, and the American Theater Company delivers both ends with a sharp point.

The Exuberant Cast of ‘Hair,’ at the American Theater Company Through June 29th
Photo credit: American Theater Company

This is the stage play of “Hair,” which is totally different than the 1979 film. The setting is an abandoned loft in 1968 New York City, and a “tribe” of fellow travelers are celebrating the freedom of the age (“Aquarius”), as they self medicate and protest the Viet Nam war. One of the the members, Claude (Zach Kenny) is given his draft notice, and he’s not sure whether he’s going or not (“Where Do I Go?”). Berger (Sky Seals) is trying to convince him not to go, and Sheila (Ella Raymont) loves both Claude and Berger, a conflict within itself. It is always darkest before the dawn. (“Let the Sunshine In”).

The cast are playing their parent’s age – and in some cases, grandparents. To get the “tech generation” to understand what was at stake, and deliver in the way that they did, was remarkable. “Hair” is the type of happening in which the cast members mingle with the crowd beforehand, and that is a bit of a groan, but they went from there to deliver an intense treatise on the 1960s hippie life, with its joys and consequences.

Standouts include Sky Seals as Berger, the glue and energy of the tribe. His reckless nature both brings the joy and the sorrow, especially for Sheila, and Seals delivers it from every fiber. Zach Kenny as Claude had an angelic singing voice, able to bring full emotion to “I Got Life” and “Where Do I Go?” Other tribe members have their moments, Aaron Holland as Hud delivers an incendiary “Colored Spade,” a race song that becomes pure anger in his delivery, and deservedly so. And Rachael Smith as Chrissy is an ethereal hippie goddess, and puts a virtuous spin on the sad/happy song, “Frank Mills.”

Letting it All Come Down in ‘Hair’
Photo credit: American Theater Company

American Theater Company, famous for staying true to the source, have taken on the original 1960s staging of “Hair,” with all the songs (many of which are not included in the film), dialogue and motivations of the original James Rado and Gerome Ragni book. There was an alteration to the infamous nude scene, and the choice unfortunately didn’t work. And the pacing of the second act slows down the action considerably, but the cast weathers it, and it does leads to the sorrow and truth of the climax.

The brilliance of “Hair” remains in its pristine message and unforgettable songs, and ATC brings that to life for our lost souls in 2014. “Hair” has been presented as both a contemporary statement and now as an act of nostalgia, but it has never lost its ability to persuade.

American Theater Company presents “Hair” at The ATC Theater, 1909 W. Bryon Street in Chicago, through June 29th, 2014 – Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Saturday/Sunday at 2pm. Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, music by Gait MacDermot. Directed by PJ Paparelli. Click here to purchase tickets and for more information. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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