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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
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Youthful energy in University Theatre's successful Hair

Forty years ago I sat in the "gods" of the Shaftesbury Theatre watching the London premiere of the love-rock tribal musical Hair. My precarious perch seemed, in retrospect, to be an allegory of my life at the time: I trembled at the edge of a huge darkness that was illuminated only by the fantastical proceedings on a distant stage, my hopes and fears in equal opposition, and all accompanied by a soundtrack of dazzling new music.

The current production of Hair at University Theatre was a far more poignant experience, but no less invigorating. In Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre Saturday night, the passion and energy of the beautiful young cast had a remarkable effect on a packed audience, fully half of whom could remember the events from the first time around.

When the onstage tribe roared "gimme a head full of hair," a hundred balding pates nodded in rueful remembrance. When draft cards were burned, there was a thrill of chilly recognition. And, most moving of all, when a funereal chant was intoned over the uniformed body of a young soldier, there were sighs and tears. How many in the audience had lost a son, a brother, a comrade in Vietnam? How many had suffered through that hell themselves, only to now see their own children being shipped off to another pointless and bloody conflict?

The play itself is, to be blunt, a mess. The book (by Gerome Ragni and James Rado) is laughably weak, lacks any true sense of drama, and is cluttered with dozens of ill-defined characters. The writers redeem themselves, however, with their lyrics, set to Galt MacDermot's hugely enjoyable music. So many of the songs have become standards, they can truly take their place in the pantheon of American musical theatre.

But this production is so rich in visual and auditory sensation that it's easy to overlook the chaotic mish-mash of the script. Led by the strong central performances of Andy Talen (Claude), Eddie Gray (Berger) and especially Katie Olsen (Sheila), the ensemble was consistently excellent and clearly having a great time.

Director Stephen Rothman has done a terrific job of pulling together colorful choreography (Wilfredo Rivera), strong musical direction (Joe Cerqua) and a sturdy house band (under Patrick Christians). There were some technical hitches and timing issues, and the sound mix was not as crisp as it could be, but the sheer tidal power of the production swept all before it.

The intervening four decades since Shaftesbury Avenue seem more like four days. But as I watched the earnest young faces of this cast, filled with those same hopes and fears as they belted out the magnificent "Let the Sun Shine In," I was left with a great sense of optimism. And the audience members who leapt onstage to join in singing the famous finale obviously felt the same way. Their hair may be a bit grayer, but they still know how to let it all hang down.

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