Going Gray

Lately, war has been much on the minds of most Americans. With over a thousand U.S. servicemen and women now dead in Iraq, and with all the campaign tap dancing over which candidate served where, when and how, it's virtually impossible not to be moved by the 1968 antiwar musical Hair, which opened, ironically enough, on September 11 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Brought to Houston by Theatre Under the Stars and directed by Philip William McKinley, the rock and roll phantasmagoria does what few politicians are willing to do today: It makes a definitive statement about the atrocities of war. For that reason alone, the production ought to be admired.

Of course, there are also all those groovy songs woven in with the political message. Ex-hippies (or children of ex-hippies, one of whom shall remain nameless) won't likely ever forget such psychedelic-style numbers as "Aquarius," filled with electronic riffs and loaded with lyrics exalting antiquated notions like a world filled with peace: "When the moon is in the seventh house / And Jupiter aligns with Mars / Then peace will guide the planets / And love will steer the stars."

Another song, "Walking in Space," which conjures the fantastical if vaguely spooky, big-pupiled experience of tripping, is very much of the era. It has lines like "My body is walking in space / My soul is in orbit with God face to face / Floating, flipping / Flying, tripping."

Still, a good, timeless musical -- even one that, with its 1,700-plus performances, remains one of the longest-running productions ever on Broadway -- needs more than a strong political message and a few cool songs. This show, which revels in getting high, often fails to generate the sort of heady joy that the characters are so desperately trying to find.

One of the biggest problems with Hair is that the story is too much a product of its own era to transcend the unkind microscope of time. The ambitious mishmash of scenes in Act I touch on just about every issue brewing in the '60s (with the notable exception of women's rights). The loose narrative about a "tribe" of friends hanging out in New York City touches on so many issues, it's often hard to find any focus. The sexual revolution is evoked in the infamous nude scene at the end of Act I and in tunes such as "Sodomy" ("Sodomy, Fellatio, Cunnilingus, Pederasty, Father, why do these words sound so nasty?"). Race politics are explored in "Colored Spade," which is little more than a condemning and ironic litany of racist terms for African-Americans. Sexuality and race politics are combined in a pair of tunes called "Black Boys" sung by a white quartet and "White Boys" sung by a black trio à la the Supremes (this tune is one of the best in the TUTS show). The generation gap, long hair, irreverence for the flag, Hare Krishnas and the evils of capitalism all also get musical moments on the stage. Some are more potent than others.

Buried deep inside all this youthful fist-shaking at the Man is a narrative about Claude (played by Tom Stuart with an astonishingly lovely voice), a longhaired, ordinary American boy whose sole ambition is to be rich and whose number is called up for the draft. The show focuses more on his story in Act II, and this is where it's most successful.

Claude is encouraged by his hippie friends to burn his draft card, but he can't. Act II brings his struggle to the murky surface, though it's as fuzzy as the drug-induced trip Claude takes -- thanks to some freakishly potent weed. While tripping, he lives out some of his worst fears, which include facing the Viet Cong. After he comes down, we watch as his friends try to comfort him. Then we see him swallowed up by the army in spite of his buddies' best efforts to save him.

The closing scene, which explores Claude's future as a soldier, plays out against the ironically joyful sounds of "Let the Sunshine In." The overall effect is deeply disturbing. The power of this ending comes in part from Stuart's ability to make Claude into a likable everyboy, clearly trapped between his desire to live past Vietnam and his confusion about the right thing to do. Of course, the current political situation adds some real heft to the ending as well. Claude's story feels painfully real, given the current statistics coming out of Iraq.

Murky as the story is, it eventually winds its way toward Claude's clear ending, and once we arrive there, the message becomes crystal clear. War, especially when fought without good cause, is tragic, cruel and wrong.

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Lee Williams