Arts musical review

Berklee’s adaptation of the famous musical Hair

A moving and dazzling performance

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A scene from Berklee College’s adaptation of Hair.
Josh Glass

Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

Directed by Rene Pfister

Berklee’s Musical Theater Ensemble and Musical Theater Orchestra

7:30 p.m. April 26, 2013

Berklee Performance Center

Growing up as a child in a very musical and theatrical family, I developed a keen sense of distinguishing high quality shows from mediocre ones, in both visual and acoustic performing arts. Even the most nuanced distasteful details in a show can make me frown, which is why I always found it difficult to like live musicals. Whereas regular plays and musical concerts require a certain subset of performance skills, musicals require the full package: good production, acting, dancing, singing and very often a well-coordinated orchestra. With that said, I am so happy to wholeheartedly admit that I was astonished by Berklee College’s adaptation of Hair, which premiered last week at the Berklee Performance Center.

Hair tells the emotional and philanthropic story of a group of hippies (the Tribe) living an outcast life, and fighting against the oppressive political system that is conscribing young men into the armed services during the Vietnam War. The musical debuted in 1967 and very soon became a treasure of American culture, promoting love, freedom, equality and peace. Besides the pacifistic ideas, Hair is often praised for revolutionizing musical theater in the late ’60s, by giving rise to the “rock musical” genre, and by having a racially diverse cast.

Berklee College did a fantastic job of adapting the musical and conveying its cathartic ideas. After the recent tragedies and fatal loss of human lives in Boston and Cambridge, their adaptation had a particularly strong emotional and moral impact, as it reminded the audience of the importance of spreading love and peace in today’s world.

I was impressed and amazed by the students’ performances. The musical numbers were bold and resonating, the acting was convincing and amusing, and the choreography was well-structured and synchronized. The orchestra, which was hidden behind the on-stage balcony, delivered a fantastic musical performance as well; the arrangements sounded just as enthralling as the original Hair soundtrack, and they complemented the students’ versatile voices well. The show lasted for almost three hours, but the energy of the performance was unfailingly high throughout this time. The most dynamic and animated numbers of Act I, like “Be-In (Hare Krishna)” and “Hair”, were not the only numbers that maintained this energy — some of the most intimate ones, like “Frank Mills”, kept it alive by adding a flavor of charm and intimacy. Close to the end of Act I, when the Tribe was burning their draft cards and performing a soul-shaking dance, my breath stopped for a second and I was fixed in place by the performance-induced goose bumps.

Just when I thought that the show could not get any more exciting, sneaky Destiny decided to play a mischievous game with the cast and turned off the microphone of one of the performers during “White Boys” in Act II. These situations are usually tricky to handle, but the Berklee cast took advantage of their bad luck. Instead of letting the singer continue without a working microphone, one of the cast members ran on stage and gave a hand microphone to the singer, which made the performance entertainingly spontaneous and professional at the same time. The musical number ended with a standing ovation and the audience inviting the cast to repeat the number by shouting “Do it again!”

During the tear-jerking finale of the musical, “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)”, I kept wondering what it was about these students that made me like their adaptation of Hair so much. They were fantastic actors, dancers and singers, no doubt about that — but there was something else about their performance, which energized the Berklee Performance Center that night. When they invited the audience members to the stage after the curtain call, laughing and rejoicing in the afterglow of their work, I finally realized the reason. What really made the show spectacular was the fact that the performers did not force the story — they enjoyed the show through their characters so effortlessly and sincerely that it was impossible to distance myself from those characters’ fates.

And I’m not the only one who thought so. My friend Ta, known for her talkative demeanor, went to see the show with me and sat quietly for the first 30 minutes, not saying a single word. I got worried that she was bored by the show, but just as the actors started performing the heartfelt number “Ain’t Got No”, she threw her hands in the air and smiled as widely as ever:

“Denis,” she looked at me and said, “this is so great.”