|Repertory Philippines stages Hair, directed by Chris Millado. The show runs until December 17 at Onstage, Makati.
That was a long first act. When Berger (Michael Schulze) introduced himself—his version of a handshake: asking a kind lady to hold the trousers he just took off—I thought we were off to a good start. Schulze's frenetic ways were captivating, and his openness, infectious. There's a hippie, I said to myself.
Excitement, however, dissolved into dizzying confusion. Tribe leader, Claude (Markki Stroem) entered with faux—not to mention annoying but maybe that was the point—Manchester accent, and Sheila (Caisa Borromeo) convinced everyone that she believes in love. Tried to. More tribe members walked onto and away from center-stage, dropping a thought or two about life, sex, war, race, pills, grass, hair... They rambled on and on until the curtains closed for intermission.
Repertory Philippines culminates its 50th anniversary celebrations with 1960's musical, Hair, directed by Chris Millado. For someone who hasn't seen any of the show's previous incarnations, Hair appears to be emblematic of its milieu and its corresponding idealisms. A re-staging in the here-and-now is tricky: how do you make viewers care about what characters care about in a story deeply entrenched in its social setting?
During its run in the '60s, Hair (understandably) aroused controversy because of its nude scene and high dose of profanity. I could imagine the musical shaking—by way of shocking—people up out of their inhibitions. We are in no age of utopia, and some may argue that we're far worse than we'd like to admit; but boys today can grow their hair long and sex is discussed openly, if frequently. Unconventional is the new normal. What will Hair mean to a shock-proof audience with short attention span?
The book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado suffers from incoherence, and it's further aggravated by the production's weak tone. I wasn't sure what it wanted from me as an audience. From where I sat, it was all freewheeling fun. The joyful, peaceful hippie spirit was there—but it failed to rub off. Even the famous nude scene was rather underwhelming. It arrived with no sense of a journey nor clarity of intention.
Act II was more enjoyable. We got to go inside Claude's drug-addled war-dreaming mind as the tribe went under the influence of hallucinogens. Presented to us were visually attractive, often compelling scenes anchored in the Vietnam War. Ironic how, for a brief moment, the musical gained some sort of narrative structure just when the characters' brains were completely messed up.
Hair's language can be alienating, but its music speaks across generations. Galt MacDermot's score showcases a spectrum of rock, flirts with R&B, and hypnotizes with incantatory hymns. Still, the chance to connect musically was squandered. Whether it was the sound system or opening night jitters, or both, I couldn't tell. The actors' voices lacked the abandon and the urgency of the rebellious young, and were somehow too polished to be irreverent.
By the time they found their footing, the show was drawing to an end. Maronne Cruz powered through the last few numbers, energizing the entire chorus. Then the cast made an up-tempo song with lyrics, "Let the sunshine in" heavy and drab and oh-so satisfying. And till the final heart-breaking scene (that suggested death—of Claude and perhaps their aspirations), Schulze remained a bright spot. He started on a high note and left on a hair-raising one—as if on fire, part-dancing, part-burning.
Many of Hair's concerns resonate with the present, in a way that many problems are universal. When they cried, "What do we want? Peace!" I silently replied, Yes, I want that, too. But then what? Agreement doesn't equate to emotional and intellectual involvement—the reason we bother with theater anyway.
The bigger irony is that the show invited us to "be-in" without allowing us to penetrate the world of the tribe. At the very least I hoped for a deeper insight into the hippie culture, but instead was assaulted with stereotypes. Throughout the musical, I felt like a bystander at the cool kids' party, alone and befuddled by all the commotion, pooped, deprived of a joint.