Review: Hair the Musical @ Palace Theatre, Manchester

Last night, we were given a wild, free and colourful welcoming into ‘The Age of Aquarius’ as Hair the Musical transported its audience to 1967 New York.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s intention to make the musical relevant in 2019 was immediately clear when the entire cast walked on solemnly at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, accompanied by a montage of recorded voices including Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

After the opening number The Age of Aquarius, for which the word ‘energetic’ barely comes close to encapsulating the sheer effervescence of spirit on stage, a topless Jake Quickenden quickly set the tone of what was to come.

He introduced himself as Berger, which preceded him referring to his manhood as “banana burger” or “cheese burger”, before ripping off his trousers.

Berger, along with a group of like-minded hippies experimenting with drugs, exploring their sexuality and dreaming of peace, dominated the stage for the entire musical and their commitment to the roles was outstanding.

Marcus Collins, who portrayed Hud deserves particular accolade for his consistency throughout both acts. Even when he was not centre stage, his flamboyant movements evoked sexual freedom and incessant drug-taking as he let his arms flay about his body and leapt about the stage.

The set was an explosion of colour and 1960s hippie culture, with a minimal band that only consisted of three guitars, a keyboard and drum kit. Even these musicians were in costume, sporting long shaggy hair, bandanas and hippie-esque attire.

Although Hair is known for having little in terms of plot development, the main focus around whether Claud, portrayed by Paul Wilkins, will remain campaigning for peace and love or leave to fight in the Vietnam War, rang true.

Smoothly gliding through Galt MacDermot’s revolutionary score, the blocking of each song reflected a strong united front, showing the tribe as a powerful movement, under the looming death and battle that hung over America in the late 1960s.

William Whelton’s choreography was not only imaginative and free but perfectly encapsulated the themes of love, sex, peace, drugs and war.

Then came the famous nude scene that ended Act 1 with a flash. This was wonderfully executed as it did not feel forced or crude but artistic and succinct, creating maximum impact.

It stripped the show back to its bare bones and revealed the vulnerability and fragile innocence of these characters, despite their relentless protest and projection of invincibility to the outside world.

Solo numbers from Natalie Green in Black Boys and Aiesha Pease in White Boys balanced perfectly controlled vocals with a brazen charm that gave them the liberty to get away with a lot of the controversial lyrics.

Each individual soloist captured the audience with their melodies, most notably Green who additionally took the soprano lead in Initials and showed off her unbelievably extensive, almost beyond-human range.

However, what this production truly delivered, more so than anything else, was an electrifying chorus of rich harmonies and innovative group choreography.

Under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, the closing famous numbers Good Evening Star Shine and Let the Sun Shine, which finished with an enchanting a cappella rendition of the chorus were done sublime justice.

The finale was deservingly met with an eruption of applause from a delighted audience who were all on their feet.

During the encore, the cast bounded into the stalls and pulled unassuming but eager spectators to join them at the front.

Within minutes, both actors and audience were dancing and singing side by side on stage.

We weren’t watching a musical about characters who felt free and limitless anymore; we were part of it, completely immersed in the world O’Boyle had shared with us.

The audience were no longer spectators; we were participants.

O’Boyle’s fantastic direction combined with the casts’ total commitment to their roles, meant that every member of the audience left wanting more of that Hippie Life.

*Hair the Musical is showing at Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday, April 13. You can buy tickets HERE.

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