REVIEW: “Hair” is in tangles

Caisa Borromeo as Shiela and George Schulze as Berger. Photo courtesy of Repertory Philippines.

Without the scandalousness of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and nudity to hide behind, Repertory Philippines’ production of “Hair” is a tangled haze of maybe familiar tunes resting on a narrative as tangible as a wisp of ganja smoke.

It’s 2017, and performers taking drugs, gyrating against each other, or even shucking all their clothing is hardly surprising anymore. So, what happens when a musical’s shock value (and biggest draw) becomes a matter of course with the current time? You’re left clamoring for something else, like a compelling story, maybe some resonance or perhaps, nostalgia. If not those, how about just plain good fun?

Directed by Chris Millado, the current staging of the infamous tribal love-rock musical (book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) at Greenbelt’s OnStage Theater is at its most hallucinogenic and least coherent, focusing on too-American themes that do not only feel dated, but immaterial to its Filipino audience.

It’s the 60s, and a tribe of young hippies are against conformity and conscription. They believe in peace, love, and existing in a state of perpetual inebriation. What little plot there is centers on Claude (Markki Stroem), torn between living the freedom offered by the tribe, or enlisting in the America-Vietnam War.

Photo courtesy of Repertory Philippines

It’s a strong cast of 23 performers (with a revolving door of celebrity guests at every performance), led by an alluring Caisa Borromeo as Shiela and an impressively erratic George Schulze as Berger. Also worth a mention are Cara Barredo as an adorably lovelorn Crissy and Jay Barrameda as gender-bending Margaret Mead.

All of them perform with infectious energy that sustains one’s attention whether or not you understand what’s going on, what they’re singing about (the theater’s sound system muddles the lyrics for most of the songs), or indeed, what they’re saying.

The show is at its most entertaining during big ensemble numbers (Ejay Yatco is musical director and PJ Rebullida is choreographer) when the young folks of the tribe are blissed-out in incoherent happiness. When it dips into drama and conflict, however, it’s lack of plot becomes too jarring as in the case of the second act. It was very hard to tell when reality would end and the hallucinations would begin in this production. The whole thing felt like a fever dream from start to finish.

The set (design by Joey Mendoza) is a bare stage, with bead curtains and projections (by GA Fallarme) serving as the entire show’s sole backdrop. John Batalla’s club lighting sets the rock music mood, but it’s James Reyes’s costumes that gives the production its authentic Flower Power vibe.

Photo courtesy of Repertory Philippines

Despite the show’s themes of protest and counterculture, Millado’s version doesn’t offer particular political resonance. Even the racial integration (subject of multiple songs) falls flat with an all-Filipino cast. It’s largely a parade of very dated and very American imagery that easily go over people’s heads.

That a musical about young, free-spirited drug users is being staged in 2017 Manila is mere happenstance. What was deliberate, was the fact that the company and this musical are celebrating their 50th anniversaries. This “Hair” is more of a period piece than an emblem of youth in revolt.

“Hair” no longer bears the sharp edge that made it so groundbreaking 50 years ago. Staged today, this production feels more like being the only one sober in a room full of inebriated people– it’s entertaining to watch, but you don’t mind going home.

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1 Comment

  1. Bigbad
    December 14, 2017

    The reviews of this musical are far too nice. This production failed dismally to hit the mark.

    I do like how you diplomatically put it at the end of your review though, about comparing the production to “being the only one sober in a room full of inebriated people– it’s entertaining to watch, but you don’t mind going home.”

    The first couple of numbers were entertaining, but getting through the first act was a form of mild torture. My partner put it this way: “It’s like being in a bad concert of someone you don’t particularly like”. You can’t help but see the variety-show take of the entire thing, as if it’s one of those silly sketches that Anne Curtis and Vhong Navarro would do at noontime. Some singers were outstanding, some were just OK.

    In the end there was no nuance to any of it. Every number was treated with the same intensity, the same dedication to making it as hippie as possible (using every stereotype in the book), and this made it so hard to empathize with the characters and engage with the story. You just KNEW you were in a theatre (in Manila) watching a play.

    To take your words, it was like being in a room full of inebriated people, only they’re not very entertaining. They were simply annoying and you regret coming in the first place.

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