The hippy-trippy musical “Hair” starts out promisingly enough at the Firehouse Theatre, with earth mother Dionne (a confident Carolyn Meade) offering a sensual rendering of the signature tune, “Age of Aquarius.” The opening is followed by a fun scene in which Berger (an energetic Nicklas Aliff) drops his pants and asks someone in the audience to hold them.
But after an encouraging beginning, this staging of “the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” goes nowhere else notable and spends too much time doing too little. Plenty of folks may be content rocking out to the peppy soundtrack, but anyone looking for more likely will be disappointed.
Roaming around a moodily lighted and vaguely industrial-looking set (lighting design by Nathan Wunderlich, set design by Benjamin Burke), members of a groovy group of late-1960s counterculture types called “the Tribe” tell their stories and sing songs full of pseudo-political diatribes, rants that often are lost in a muddy sound mix.
The problematic technical elements would be easier to overlook if there seemed to be a strong vision propelling the action forward. Instead, director Jase Smith does little to add coherence to the production, never following up on the promise of something challenging and in-your-face as offered by Berger’s first scene.
Granted, the show itself doesn’t provide a clear road map to relevance. Sure, there are some great, irreverent songs such as “Sodomy” and the “Black Boys/White Boys” faceoff that still have the ability to surprise. In stark contrast, the “glippy glop gloopy” interludes of “Good Morning Starshine” are just embarrassingly silly.
The biggest obstacle, however, is a whisper-thin plot that involves Claude (a steady Matt Polson) spending most of the show trying to decide whether he’s going to show up to be drafted, and very little else. None of the other characters have more than one dimension -- Grey Garrett’s Sheila is political, Ian Page’s Woof loves Mick Jagger. For a groundbreaking musical, the women are particularly badly served, a pregnant Jeannie (Maura Burroughs) fawns over a unresponsive Claude, a hapless Chrissy (Morgan Meadows) loves a boy she met once and now can’t find.
The show cries out for something to make all the randomness mean something and Smith doesn’t offer much. Some of the final moments where shit actually gets real are even more confusing than the druggy hallucinatory scenes.
Unfortunately, some excellent performances get lost amidst the confusion. Meadows’ sweet and clear rendition of “Frank Mills” accompanied only by acoustic guitarist Grant Oliver is a highlight. Paul Major gets some well-earned laughs cross-dressing as Margaret, a tourist whose earnest interest in the kids’ lifestyle prompts the anthemic “Hair” in response. The band, led by music director Leilani Giles, hits all of the right notes, though it might have helped the show if it did so more quietly.
Many aging hippies hold out hope that the ’60s counterculture revolution meant something, that the spirit of progressive idealism actually changed perspectives. This reductive production -- offered now when issues of war and individual freedom still are debated hotly -- suggests that the converse fear may be true: that the era was about fun songs, crazy clothes and not a lot of substance.
“Hair” runs at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., through July 19. Call 355-2001 or go to firehousetheatre.org for tickets and information.