nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 4, 2009
The Broadway revival of Hair begins with a rousing rendition of the show's thrilling signature song, "Aquarius," and it ends (following the curtain call) with the cast dancing on stage and welcoming audience members enthusiastically to join them. With the cheapest tickets going for $37 apiece, this isn't exactly a Be-In, but it's very much a Happening for the 2009 theatre-going crowd, and from where I sat it sure looked like just about everybody in the room was enjoying themselves.
Celebration is an important part of Hair, and that's the element that director Diane Paulus has most tapped into in this production. Most of the first act is all about having a good time, drawing on the show's songs about sex ("Sodomy"), drugs ("Hashish," "The Stone Age," "Initials"), and rock & roll ("Manchester, England," "Ain't Got No," "Hair") to alternately revel in and goof on what used to be militant earmarks of the counterculture but now feel warm and fuzzy and familiar and fun.
The second act, which is more serious—it features a long and scary hallucination by the show's protagonist, Claude, who is about to be shipped off to the Vietnam War—replays the anti-war ritual that has become part of the liberal American psyche. Paulus presses the buttons that will ensure we're reminded of Hair's message about the immorality of war. The show's second most famous song, "Let the Sun Shine In," becomes an angry anthemic finale that stirs us up for the post-show revelry.
Hair features lots of action in the aisles (and sometimes even on the arms of seats) as actors speed off the stage and into the auditorium and back again. There are two staircases at either side of the stage, but don't think the mezzanines are off-limits: there are onstage ladders leading to the boxes as well. It doesn't feel particularly spontaneous (and never dangerous) but it is exciting.
Hair's loose revue-like format is honored with a gaggle of performing styles: hard-driving loud rock a la The Who's Tommy and Rent; angry mob-style choreography a la Les Miserables; a scene-stealing, note-holding female impersonator a la Mary Sunshine in Chicago; a female ingenue with a big Idina Menzel belt a la Wicked.
Will Swenson, who plays Berger (best friend to Claude and de facto leader/instigator of "The Tribe," the band of rebellious youth at the center of Hair), has charisma and energy to spare and seems to really get into playing to the crowd in the early part of the show (practically the first thing he does is take off his pants). Gavin Creel, who plays Claude, is sweet-voiced and limber-limbed, but I was never convinced of his character's radical credentials. (Both Creel and Swenson seem a good ten years too old for their roles as well, but let that go.) Darius Nichols and Bryce Ryness as two more flamboyant members of The Tribe make stronger impressions. Megan Lawrence (as Claude's Mom) and Andrew Kober (in drag, as a faux audience member dubbed "Margaret Mead") avoid subtlety in jokey characterizations. Allison Case does nice work in her one number, the sweetly simple "Frank Mills."
Kevin Adams's lights are ever-changing and adrenalin-driving. Scott Pask's set doesn't consist of much more than the ladders and staircases I already mentioned, but it's very effective (he's put the orchestra on stage; they're led by Nadia Digiallonardo and they sound fine).
The show flies by and it's without a doubt a crowd-pleaser. But what, I asked myself, is finally the point of this production of Hair? People younger than me even by a few years never knew a military draft in this country; there's nothing remotely shocking or surprising about the sex, drugs, rock & roll, bad language, nudity, or funky hairdos and far-out costumes.
I found this great quote in Wikipedia from La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart: "Hair came with blue jeans, comfortable clothing, colors, beautiful colors, sounds, movement.... And you can go to AT&T and see a secretary today, and she's got on blue jeans...." I think that completely sums up how much the world has changed since Hair burst unto the cultural scene in 1967. It really was revolutionary then. I'd sure love to see something really revolutionary on Broadway now.