Less than a week before Hair opened at Theatre Charlotte on Friday, May 16, “The Tribe” emerged from a crowd of Saturday shoppers at the local IKEA and serenaded them with “Aquarius.” It was perhaps Charlotte’s most successful Random Act of Culture since the Knight Foundation and Arts & Science Council started producing them some four years ago. In part, that’s because there’s strength in numbers; the 26-member cast of Hair is actually large enough to constitute a “flash mob.” In part, too, it was a result of the music: “Aquarius,” transitioning into “Let the Sun Shine,” glows with the warmth of good feelings like peace and love and sympathy. No doubt, though, a key factor in the success of the surprise IKEA performance – as in the performance in the little theatre on Queens Road six days later – was the enthusiasm, the exhilaration, of the performers.

Theatre Charlotte Executive Director Ron Law, who directed the production, wrote in the program notes that he “revered” the album Hair as a student at Kent State University during the tumultuous years (the late 1960s) the show depicts (yes, he was there when the Ohio National Guard showed up). It is a musical, he wrote, that he has “long wanted to direct,” and he has obviously infused his cast with the intense commitment to the musical that he felt in his youth. Every one of the cast projected energy and excitement, and the opening-night audience responded in kind.

While the stage was effectively designed (by Chris Timmons) to depict a derelict alley in New York City, the entire space of the filled-to-capacity theater really became the playing ground for Hair’s action. The walls were painted with graffiti; the cast frequently poured in and out of the theater from the back, filling the aisles with flashes of light and good vibrations as they danced and sang and rabble-roused. The excellent band was cleverly housed onstage, with an alcove for the trumpets and a “cage” for the percussion on one side, and a platform for the guitar and bass and a corner for the wind player on the other. Music Director Ryan Deal kept things rocking from his upstage, central post at the keyboard.

“Aquarius,” the musical’s most famous song, opens the show. Dani Burke, as Dionne, has a powerful, soulful voice and immediately set the mood for “mystic crystal revelation.” With very little dialogue, Hair moves quickly from one musical number to the next. Most of the show’s content comes from the songs. While the cast boasts many fine singers, the band sometimes overpowered them, obscuring stretches of text. An adjustment on the soundboard should take care of that.

As I watched the characters cavort their way through taboo topics and rock ‘n’ roll beats, I couldn’t help but think about two other productions I have seen recently. The first, Lanford Wilson’s play Balm in Gilead, is contemporaneous with Hair. Written in 1965 (Hair opened in 1967), it too depicts the chaotic comings and goings of a crowd of young people on the fringe of society. In both Hair and Gilead, most of the characters are not truly characters at all; we know nothing, really, of who they are or where they come from or where they will end up. There is very little plot, but rather an intense evocation of a moment, or series of moments, in a troubled time.

The second, Spring Awakening, is a musical descendant of Hair, which is usually credited as the first rock musical. Like Hair, Spring Awakening (2006) is about young people confronting the repressive society imposed by an elder generation (in this case, late 19th-century Germany). But Hair is not nearly as heavy-handed as Spring Awakening, in which sexual exploration and youth rebellion are entangled with the darkness of sadism, abortion, and suicide. There is not much to laugh at in Spring Awakening, but Hair writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni offer plenty of ironic humor as they present issues of grave import: racial discrimination, environmental destruction, and of course, war.

There are a number of “hippies” who stand out from Hair’s Tribe – the manic Berger (Jordan Ellis, who never let his energy falter), the ditzy Jeanie (Kayla Piscatelli), the racially militant Hud (Tyler Smith), the young and sweet Crissy (a precocious K.C. Roberge, who is, I believe, still in high school), the gushy Woof (Steven James) – but only two characters ultimately demonstrate complexity or really deal with internal conflict. Sheila (Chase Law), who emerges as the most mature of the lot, sings the show’s first truly earnest song towards the end of Act I. In “Easy to Be Hard” she offers a genuine criticism of her fellow hippies, questioning how people “who care about evil and social injustice” can be so heartless and cruel to their own friends.

Likewise, Claude (Kristian Paul Andrewson) becomes the central conduit for grappling with the complex condition of his generation. We see him with his cartoon parents (Dan Brunson and Stephanie DiPaolo), who want him to cut his hair and change his trousers and get a job. He wants to reinvent himself as an Englishman, a genius, an Italian filmmaker – something more interesting than a kid from Flushing, Queens. But while The Tribe offers an escape from Middle American conservatism, it doesn’t answer the fundamental question of why he lives and dies. “Now that I’ve dropped out, why is life dreary?” he asks.

When Claude gets his draft card, he is thrown into turmoil. He doesn’t want to go to Vietnam; he is scared. All of his friends, opposed to the war, have no trouble burning their draft cards, but Claude cannot bring himself to do it. At the end of the musical, he appears in uniform, hair shorn. “They got me,” he says, but it is not simply that Claude has weakly conformed to the expectations of his parents or a one-dimensional social system he and The Tribe oppose. Earlier in the show he makes a statement that embodies the moral dilemma that his generation struggled with: “I want to live what they’re over there fighting for.”

In his program note, director Ron Law has written that the other album that spun round and round on his college record player was Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera appears on Theatre Charlotte’s next season. I am guessing – and hoping – that Law will be at the helm of that production, too, inspiring more dedicated, lively performances from his cast.

Hair continues through Sunday, June 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.