Signature Theatre stages ‘beautiful, vibrant, colorful explosion’ with psychedelic musical ‘Hair’

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Hair' at Signature Theatre (Part 1)

It first intoxicated Broadway in 1968, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical.

Mason Reeves as Berger in "Hair" at Signature Theatre in Virginia. (Christopher Mueller)

Now, you can enjoy Signature Theatre’s production of “Hair,” running through July 7 in Arlington, Virginia.

“I was in high school and I didn’t quite understand what it was about when I first saw it, I thought it was just a bunch of people partying and having a good time,” actor Mason Reeves told WTOP. “I didn’t quite get all of the intense themes of anti-war and free love. … At first, audiences get a little confused like, ‘What’s happening?’ Then it’s fun to watch them slowly drop into what this style of storytelling is. It’s really emotional.”

Written off-Broadway in 1967, the story follows a company of long-haired bohemian hippies on the cusp of adulthood as they champion freedom, pacifism and joy in the late 1960s, while confronting a world thrown into chaos when one of their own, Claude, receives a draft notice for the Vietnam War.

“It’s about the counterculture that was happening at that moment,” Reeves said. “Everybody’s heard of the ‘Summer of Love,’ which was a time when everybody went to San Francisco and they were all out on the streets loving on each other and it was all about free love and peace. This is not set in San Francisco, but it’s a similar idea about a group of people saying, ‘Man, I’m tired of all this war, the draft, all this new technology.'”

Reeves plays the pivotal role of Berger, who becomes a magnetic leader of the group.

“He’s sort of a talisman,” Reeves said. “He brings a lot of people together. He is very energetic, very joyous and very anti-anything that is going to keep him from being him, as free as possible at any time, so a lot of people really gravitate toward him in the group. He’s sort of the unifying factor, he brings everyone into this amazing, joyous, loving space, while still being 18, he’s still in high school, so still a very flawed human being.”

The stage version is more free-flowing than the 1979 movie adaptation, directed by Miloš Forman halfway between his two Best Picture winners of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984).

“The movie is very different,” Reeves said. “We’ve had a lot of people come see the musical that have been like, ‘Oh, this is so different from the movie.’ In the movie, they add more of a central plot, whereas the musical is a lot more like you’re on a trip. We bounce from thing to thing and you follow an emotional through line, but the movie is very clear about what’s happening, whereas the musical is not handing you the plot.”

Visually, you’ll still see all of the hypnotic, psychedelic colors of the free-spirited 1960s.

“When you first come in, you’re greeted by this big screen projecting American propaganda about the Vietnam War, being a man, going off and fighting, it’s very dark and gray, then all of a sudden, the set opens up into this beautiful, vibrant, colorful explosion,” Reeves said. “It’s definitely a spectacle for the eyes — talk about trippin’! It really makes you feel like ‘I’m on this roller coaster, so buckle in.’ It’s very exciting.”

Likewise, the songbook still features your favorite chart-topping hits by Galt MacDermot (music) and Gerome Ragni and James Rado (lyrics), including “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In.”

“We’ve got ‘Aquarius’ of course … everybody loves that one,” Reeves said. “‘Let the Sunshine In’ and ‘Flesh Failures,’ that’s another one people really like to sing along with. … One of my favorite songs in the show is ‘Electric Blues’ about the onset of technology in the 1960s … being mind-numbed and brainwashed by our devices — and that’s only gotten even more prevalent in our time.”

Indeed, the themes remain timeless, bursting with social commentary on relevant issues today.

“We didn’t have to change anything for it to still be relevant,” Reeves said. “We’re still dealing with all the same stuff. This show has a lot about African American rights. At the time it was very different, they were dealing with segregation and more overt racism, but we’re still dealing with police brutality. … We’re definitely still dealing with LGBT things, being able to be prideful and represent yourself however you want.”

Beyond the shows at Signature Theatre, the cast will also showcase items at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in D.C. this Thursday from 12 to 2 p.m., along with a live performance and panel discussion with the original Broadway cast. The event is free, but you must register in advance.

Listen to our full conversation here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes 'Hair' at Signature Theatre (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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