Renegade Arts Company presents Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Photo by Jim Buckshon.
Renegade Arts Company presents Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Photo by Jim Buckshon.

None of the cast in the Renegade Arts Co production of the rock musical Hair would have been born in the 1960s, but that hasn’t stopped them from absolutely embracing the hippy counterculture of the time. But maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider what was on offer: free love and drugs, all wrapped inside an anti-war sentiment.

Helping to define the rock musical genre when it first landed on Broadway in 1968, Hair was largely a protest of the Vietnam War. It is no mere coincidence that the American involvement in that war was at its height the year it made its debut. But even as the hippy movement portrayed in Hair is the zeitgeist to a generation from decades past, it is surprising how fresh and current it feels.

Strip away the long hair and tie-dyed t-shirts and Hair becomes another generation’s fight. There is an outpouring of love and hope that permeates the show that, coupled with a profound sadness, remains a constant today.

In one of the musicals most poignant and powerful moments, as the cast sings “Let the Sunshine In” in its finale, there is a longing optimism in recognizing that “somewhere, inside something there is a rush of greatness”. It also speaks volumes to a current generation who look back at what those before them have allowed to happen, and a frustrating realization of how little things have changed.

In the end, it is Hair’s central message of hope and love which continues to resonate. In a time when society continues to grapple with the atrocities of war and the ongoing oppression of people based on race, religion and sexuality, Hair carries an aspirational ideal: are we really doomed to repeat history?  Events of recent weeks would perhaps say we are, but while our collective faith in humanity may falter from time-to-time, without the belief that we have the ability and courage to change, our very existence comes into question.

That desire for change is captured beautifully by this cast of 24. Largely made-up of pre-professionals, the cast transcends the show’s time period, providing a genuine understanding of what makes a musical like Hair still important.

With a jaw dropping 40+ songs though, Hair does suffer somewhat in obscuring the musical’s central story though. Born into a middle class-class home in Flushing, New York, Claude’s upbringing clashes with his newfound freedom with the “tribe” of hippies. Eventually drafted into the Vietnam War, Claude wrestles with his place in both worlds, paying the ultimate price when the pull to his more conservative upbringing wins out.

At its most powerful when the ensemble comes together – the opening “Aquarius” will send chills down your spine – the entire cast embraces The Summer of Love vibe. Throwing inhibitions to the wind, the cast revels in the show’s free spirit, including the nude scene at the end of act one which created such controversy when the musical first appeared on Broadway.

There are also some terrific individual performances. As the tribe’s de facto leader, Jacob Woike is confident, cocky and aware of the fluidity of sexuality. Julien Galipeau embraces Claude’s internal conflict with an innocence and sense of loneliness that is at times heartbreaking, with his performance of “I Got Life” a highlight.  Steffanie Davis showcases her vocal skills, along with that of Alex Gullason and the trio of Cecily Day, Janelle Reid, and Kris Kuruneri.  In one of the show’s more provocative number, “Colored Spade”, Marc Williams shines, and Emilie Teichroeb gives us a beautiful rendition of “Frank Mills”.

As if by magic, director and choreographer Dawn Ewen moves this massive cast effortlessly within the relatively small confines of The Shop Theatre. Her energetic and intricate choreography is beautifully realized.

Atop the scaffolding that always seems to make an appearance in shows like this, sits musical director Kerry O’Donovan and his band members, Peter Serravalle, Monica Sumulong and Colin Parker. This quartet rocks the house, working hard while trying not to overpower a cast that is largely unamplified.

Which brings us to the biggest problem of the evening: performing a rock musical without the benefit of microphones. While the ensemble is able to fill the small space collectively, individual performances were sometimes lost. Handheld microphones that were used in the first half all but disappeared in the second, no doubt admitting defeat when they didn’t always work.

CJ McGillivray’s set gives plenty of space for the cast to play, dance and sing, with the addition of a VW van laden with messages of love and peace as the centerpiece. Costume designer Clara Dixon captures the time period with clarity.

While Hair may be a product of its time, the fact it can still find relevance nearly forty years later is simultaneously exhilarating and depressing. Fortunately there is hope. There is always hope.

Hair with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragani. Music by Galt MacDermot. Directed by Dawn Ewen. Music direction by Kerry O’Donovan. A Renegade Arts Co production. On stage at The Shop Theatre (125 East 2nd Ave, Vancouver) until July 2. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.