One individual’s groovy personal flashback might be another’s dated historical relic. The times are a-changing, to be sure, but the good thing about the landmark 1967 musical “Hair” is that it has the potential to satisfy people from both tribes, so to speak — either as an affectionate trip down memory lane for the older generation, or as a telling token of a bygone era for the younger set.
The show was considered controversial and provocative when it debuted on Broadway, with its depiction of political activism, sexual liberation (with requisite nudity) and copious drug use among the hippie counterculture. Its popularity has endured over the years, largely due to a rousing rock score (by Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni) that barely seems to have aged at all.
Four decades later, though, what used to be theatrically radical and cutting edge now feels somewhat nostalgic and quaint. Given its sketchy character development and hazy plot points, and because so many of the songs could qualify as “greatest hits” (“Let the Sunshine In,” “Aquarius,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Good Morning, Starshine”), at times “Hair” unwittingly assumes the quality of one of those run-of-the-mill retro jukebox revues.
Since founding the company 10 years ago, Serenbe Playhouse executive/artistic director Brian Clowdus has typically wowed audiences with expansive and immersive outdoor productions of such traditionally stage-bound musicals as “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “Miss Saigon” and last season’s “Titanic.” In his versions, characters entered and exited scenes on horseback; they rode a functioning Ferris wheel or merry-go-round; they evacuated war-torn Vietnam in a real helicopter; and they plunged to their deaths by jumping into an actual lake.
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As each of those shows demonstrated, there’s a first time for everything. His current rendition of “Hair,” on the other hand, marks another kind of milestone for Clowdus; it’s the first time he’s ever repeated himself by remounting one of the troupe’s earlier “main stage” successes (from 2013, and which I didn’t see).
It’s conceived in the rock-’n’-rolling style of a Woodstock concert — replete with flashy and far-out lighting (designed by Kevin Fraizer); trippy hippie costumes (by Erik Teague) featuring lots of headbands, beads and shredded vests; and generally overdosing on the use of a few smoke machines. Digging all the tunes is a no-brainer, under the energized music direction of Ed Thrower (leading a band of six other musicians), and as performed by a with-it ensemble of singers.
Less effective is the script’s narrative. More often than not, when the music stops, so does the entire show. Most of the actors don’t have much to work with, basically limited to snippets of dialogue that set up their turn for a song or speech, without establishing or revealing enough to make us care what they’re singing or talking about anyway.
Many of those with extended scenes to play — involving a ménage à trois, or a drag-queen routine as Margaret Mead — fare no better. Out-of-towner Zane Phillips, for instance, stars as the free-spirited Claude, a would-be draft dodger (and closet conformist), and there’s a touch of genuine poignancy in the fact that he could be doomed to die in Vietnam.
But what really passes for a flower-powered anti-war statement in “Hair” is a strung-out hallucination sequence that rambles interminably, transporting him on a psychedelic vaudevillian march through history. Despite its mindful sense of protest, the show often takes this easier way out, by essentially just turning on and tuning out instead.
Through Aug. 18. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. $35-$65. Wild Flower Meadow at Serenbe, 10950 Hutchesons Ferry Road, Chattahoochee Hills. 770-463-1110. serenbeplayhouse.com.
Bottom line: Tune in to the timeless music, but the period script is a turnoff.
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