Clothing as symbol probably began when the first caveman (or more likely cavewoman) got the idea of wearing a deer-skin wrap. An anthropologist once told me about a tribe in which the men wore nothing at all except "penis sheaths." But, the idea of going around unsheathed was a serious breach of decorum. Definitely uncool.
Fast forward several millennia to the U.S. in the '50s. Ozzie Nelson, Dagwood Bumstead and "the man in the gray flannel suit" represented the accepted norm.
Then the Beatniks ushered in alternative fashions that included beards, among other shocking things like marijuana and Zen Buddhism. They were the thin edge of the wedge. In the sixties, we got hippies, tie-dye, long hair, LSD and so forth.
Keeping up with fashions was never my strong suit, but a moment came when I succumbed (briefly, thank God). Fortunately, a photograph has survived of me in my bell bottoms (made of mattress ticking), my Nehru jacket, and -- for good measure -- three rings on one hand. I don't know if I've ever heard my daughter laugh so hard as when she found that picture.
Now, just to bring the fashion chronicle full circle, I have to tell you that 20 or so years ago, some young English friends flew to Manhattan, then drove down to visit me here. They were dressed with a sort of retro-avant garde formality. The blokes wore black sport coats and white ties over dark shirts. They had close cropped hair. They complained bitterly about the long-haired, mustachioed rednecks who hassled them.
And what has this summary of fashion to do with local theater? Well, Hats!, currently on the boards at Harrah's, celebrates one of the oddest fashion orthodoxies to grip the world: The Red Hat Society.
Hats! is a musical revue (book by Marcia and Anthony Dodge) built around a modern, secular, tongue-in-cheek morality tale about a woman trying to cope with the big Five-O. Is aging a peculiarly modern dilemma? Is the horror of cellulite a baby-boomer obsession? Perhaps -- but remember Shakespeare's famous praise of Cleopatra: "Age can not wither her, no custom stale her infinite variety."
In any case, MaryAnne (Carrie LaSoutos) enters -- with a quarter hour remaining before that terrifying threshold of middle age (middle, that is, if one lives for a century). Her mother and cronies are ready to welcome the youngster as a new member in their sorority. After all, as they sing at one point: "The older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune." But MaryAnne wants no part of it. Much of the humor of Hats! has to do with bodily decrepitude. At one point, after complaining about varicose veins, cottage cheese on her hips and liver spots, MaryAnne laments: "I won't mind being stimulated and penetrated, but -- hell -- for that, I need to be lubricated."
Decrepitude is dark humor, I grant you. But in fairness, the Red Hatters did not invent old age, they are simply trying to accept it gracefully and to find a way not only to keep enjoying life, but also to keep enjoying being women. Sometimes, this entails a naughty bravado, like when "The Duchess" (Maxine Weldon) dons a white gown and belts out the charmingly lighthearted romp "My Oven's Still Hot."
Most of the stage remains empty most of the time, except for three gigantic hats that serve as the visual focus against a backdrop of a star-filled night sky. At one point, MaryAnne gets some help for her age-trauma from a puppet lady name Ruby Red Hat, who appears off to one side of the stage.
Off to the other side of the stage, Lawrence Sieberth (on keyboard) leads a jivy four-piece band through the 13 songs -- written by an equal number of composers and lyricists. The cast (Barbara Lauren, Sharon McKnight, Terry Palasz, Lynda Diane Reed, Patricia Welch) sing well, give spirited performances and manage to project varied characters. Although this last detail brings up one of the kinks in the concept itself -- while the Red Hat Society says it has no rules, it does posit one inviolable guideline: "Have fun."
No matter how you cut it, there's something kitsch about the injunction "to put on a red hat and have fun." When MaryAnne finally joins the band of jolly matrons, you know it's meant as a triumphant finale, but you half wish (if you're not a Red Hatter yourself) that she'd give them all a Bronx cheer.
Still, these talented ladies win you over. Judging from the audience when I saw the show, Red Hatters in particular will love it.
- The cast of Hats! embraces the aging process with a little song and dance.