Getting hugged by a sweaty, shirtless hippie isn't often par for the course when going to the theater, but then again, this is San Francisco, and this is also Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical at Bindlestiff Studios. Before the show started, cast members mingled with the audience, granting hugs and being "groovy." The decision to have the cast interact with the audience was a smart one, especially for this tiny theater, which holds around 80 seats.
The cast of Hair are unfortunately the sort of rag-tag group one tries very hard to avoid in San Francisco -- homeless, stinky, broke, and in your face with all of their blissed-out, drug-induced, hippie wisdom. With such a small stage, the audience needed to be acclimated quickly to the up-close and personal nature of the show and its intense cast of characters. Getting a hug from a topless hippie first thing made any other discomforts of personal space intrusions seem insignificant in comparison.
Vocally, the ensemble was strong and well-mixed, with voices that were loud and clear without overwhelming the audience. That said, we were quite underwhelmed with the first solo song, "Donna." Milo Shearer as Berger seemed to be slightly out of breath and Alyssa Carter as Sheila lacked strength and vitality. This perhaps was partly due to the staging as they ran around haphazardly in tiny circles after each other.
As the story unfolded and the characters became more developed with their own back stories and emotional struggles we found ourselves less turned off by the hippie shtick and more engaged with dynamics among the young friends as they struggled through the realities of their time -- poverty, drugs, sex, oppressive parents, and the Vietnam War. The characters slowly became more relatable and the individual actors' voices gained footing. We also became much more attached after the cast (finally!) got naked for the be-in at the end of act one.
Specifically, Carter redeemed herself tenfold when she arrived at her big solo, "Easy to Be Hard." Any sense of holding back or lacking support disappeared. Her strong belt, laced with a touch of grit, rose out of her incredibly small frame bringing power and angst to the song while balancing her volume for the intimate space. Shearer also proved himself as a stronger vocalist further into the show with his number "Going Down."
Other highlights of the show were George Chavez, whose "Margaret Mead" drag performance had the audience in hysterics throughout as she grabbed an unsuspecting audience member to be her husband Hubert, covering him in bright red lipstick and flinging him around the stage. Alongside his comedic talents, Chavez proved to be an impressive vocalist and we wished that his voice had been highlighted more in the show. William Potter as Woof and Tiffany Oliver as Chrissy were the sweetest of characters -- enthusiastic, innocent, and animated in their youthful optimism and Melanie Wahla was endearing and pitiable as the knocked-up Jeanie.
Our absolute favorite numbers in the show were "Yes I's Finished on Y'alls" and "Four Score/Abie Baby," in which the characters are all tripping on acid and Abe Lincoln, played by a black female cast member, is hailed as the "Emanci-Mutha-Fuckin-Pator of the Slaves."
As the show wound down, turning its focus to the ravages of the Vietnam War, the staging and vocal direction utilized stark simplicity to emphasize the raw emotions of the cast. As they joined hands and belted "Let the Sunshine In," the song took on new meaning as a command for peace and a cry against the tragedies of war.
While Hair took some warming up, once these kids get going they'll suck you in, drag you under, and get you high enough to actually enjoy this strange, strange trip of a show.