Theatre Charlotte’s ‘Hair’ sings and stings

If you don’t know “Hair,” you’re in for a shock if you see the Theatre Charlotte version, which seems to be its locally produced debut.

Not in the language, which you can hear daily on pay-cable television. Not in the brief, incidental nudity. Not even in the countless references to LSD and body parts and free love.

No, the startling thing is that this anti-establishment musical, which premiered off-Broadway almost half a century ago, isn’t the paean to youth culture that legend has made it out to be.

The kids in the New York “tribe” who open their hearts, minds and zippers are a mess: idealistic and selfish, affectionate and cruel, thoughtful and dense, brave and cowardly, older than their years at times yet infantile at others. The show skewers the generation that was sending its children to fight in Vietnam in 1967, yet it doesn’t glorify these confused offspring.

Some of this may be news to the audience at Friday’s opening. I heard people say they couldn’t make out the lyrics – I often couldn’t, though I know them well – and only a few voices consistently emerged above the capable, overbearing rock band onstage. Music director Ryan Deal and director Ron Law need to adjust the sound balance at once.

When they do, they’ll have a justified hit. The cast has energy, commitment and a number of attractive voices, and they sing this material as if lives depended on it. (The central antiwar metaphor resonates in the era of Iraq and Afghanistan, so perhaps they do.)

After a soaring “Aquarius” by Dionne (Dani Burke) and the tribe, the book by Jerome Ragni and James Rado introduces us to roughly a dozen characters. Only three matter: dreamy Claude (plaintive Kristian Paul Andrewson), animalistic Berger (gleefully crass Jordan Ellis) and Sheila, who’s drawn to each (endearing Chase Law).

Claude has gotten a draft notice in 1967 and been told to report to a Selective Service Office, presumably to be sent to Vietnam. The tribe expects him to burn his draft card – and probably flee to Canada, though that’s unspoken – but under his flowing hair, Claude’s a closet conformist.

Director Law makes wise use of his space: Members of the tribe flood the aisles, interact with patrons, parade through with spooky flashlights or fists full of flowers. Chris Timmons’ set looks like an abandoned building the denizens of “Rent” might take over 25 years later, with band members perched above singers in different alcoves. (That’s one reason they’re so loud.)

The adults here are Claude’s parents (Dan Brunson and Stephanie DiPaolo), who growl or moan, and sociologist-in-drag Margaret Mead (Brunson), who’s an amenable fool.

But are the kids better models? Berger gives his friends dope laced with unhealthy chemicals, inspiring Claude’s long hallucination in the second act. Airheaded Jeanie (Kayla Piscatelli), unmarried and pregnant, blithely puffs pot. Claude wants to abdicate responsibility completely – as long as someone pays his bills – and become invisible.

Yet their protests still matter. We haven’t solved the problems they address, from pollution to racial disunity to use of young people in unnecessary wars.

Many numbers seem fresh, too. The worst of them were throwaways to begin with; half a dozen “list songs” simply bombard us with images, one after another. But the best have the power to inspire.

The lyrics to “The Flesh Failures” remain poetic and troubling. The happy nonsense of “Good Morning Starshine” has stayed infectious. When Sheila sings “Easy to Be Hard,” reflecting on Berger’s rudeness, we feel her pain. The musical that naysayers called a theatrical gimmick gets under our skins after 47 years.