ST. PETERSBURG — The cast of Hair seems to be having a blast, and that is crucial. There is nothing snarky, ironic or too cool for school about "the American tribal love-rock musical," a passionate paean to peace and love, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The audience is having a good time, too, at the American Stage in the Park production that opened over the weekend on Demens Landing. Here are some snapshots — Polaroids, of course — from Saturday's performance of the happening that defined the '60s.
The best? In 25 years of park shows, if this is not the best one ever, it's right up there in the running, with a terrific cast under the direction of Eric Davis. Hair is not easy to pull off — all the hippie stuff could get awfully campy in the wrong hands — but Davis prevails by being true to the radical theater from which it sprang. For example, one of the images that will stay with me is of Aleshea Harris, a striking young black woman, as she portrays a stovepipe-hatted Abraham Lincoln in what is both a savage satire of American history and a delightful doo-wop number. The staging is loaded with deft touches, such as pregnant Jeanie (Stefanie Clouse) being wheeled in atop an oil barrel amid billowing smoke to sing the anti-pollution Air ("Welcome sulphur dioxide"), attended to by Tribe members in gas masks.
Not lovable: Berger (Jeremy Hays) and Claude (Jonathan Hack) are the edgy, in-your-face ringleaders of the Tribe, and they don't care if the audience loves them or not, which, naturally, makes the pair more appealing than they would ever be as typical juvenile leads. Berger unbuckles his jeans and lusts for a "16-year-old virgin," then moons the crowd and rips up a yellow shirt that is a gift from Sheila (Laura Hodos, who responds to his boorish snub with Easy to Be Hard, one of the more psychologically complex torch songs ever written). Hack plays Claude with a goofy English accent (for his improbable homage to Manchester, England) and kicks out the jams in the exhilarating one-two punch of I Got Life and Hair.
Underrated composer: Galt MacDermot's score is an embarrassment of riches — more than 30 songs, compared to the usual 10 or 12 for a musical — and it holds up remarkably well. Sure, Aquarius (Luerne Herrera does the honors) and other hits are great to hear, but I'd forgotten about such gems as Frank Mills (a sweetly girlish performance by Alex Covington) and the bouncy country harmonies of Don't Put It Down ("Crazy for the red, blue and white"). The arrangements shine in the playing of musical director Vince di Mura on keyboards with Kenny Walker (bass), Peter Leon (drums) and Nicholas J. White (guitar). Outdoor sound is always a trip, but the miking and mix on Saturday were as good as I've heard. Get a spot near speakers for the full musical effect.
Guilty pleasure: The lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. "They'll be gaga at the go-go" in the anthem Hair never fails to break me up, and I just love the nonsense lyrics in Good Morning Starshine.
Best use of a swing set: In White Boys and Black Boys, the playful sex on swings is sublime, while di Mura and his band make like Booker T and the MGs, laying down a funky groove for Darlene Hope's soulful vocal.
The electric Kool-Aid acid test: Scott Cooper's massive set is strung with Christmas lights, and his psychedelic designs (painted by Lynn Principe) glow under Kate Bashore's lighting. There is not a tie-dye to be found in Frank Chavez's urban costume design. The Tribe includes a pair of dancers — Sasha Jimenez and Brooke Bradley — who bring style to Cynthia Hennessy's choreography, such as their writhing pas de deux in fatigues for What a Piece of Work Is Man.
Audience participation: You might as well get used to it. Incense-burning, flower-tossing actors rove among the picnickers, and if you're really lucky, Clinton C.H. Harris, wearing a bathrobe in the guise of anthropologist Margaret Mead, will haul you up onstage to help perform My Conviction.
Do they get naked? Well, yeah, with strategically placed hands and protest signs ("Strip for Justice") in the famous nude scene by the entire cast that closes Act 1. Now let's see them do Oh! Calcutta! in the park.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.