nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 3, 2008
Could there be a more pertinent show on the New York boards right now than Hair? I seriously doubt it. The Public Theater's beautiful new revival of Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt McDermot's seminal rock musical is a glorious and inspiring rush of fervency that reminds audiences that the era it originally came from—late 1960s America, when the country was embroiled in a divisive and controversial war, and the youth culture had a chance to change the world for the better—is not so different from our own. The show's timeless anti-war stance, unpolished exuberance, and big heart make it abundantly clear why it has endured the test of time instead of turning into an embarrassing hippie-dippy museum piece.
Hair isn't traditional storytelling, though. It's part rock concert, part protest rally, and part agitprop street theatre as it follows a group of young hippies—known as "The Tribe"—around downtown New York circa 1968: to a love-in, a draft card burning, and a march on an Army recruitment center. The leader of The Tribe is Berger, a sardonic and charismatic type who believes in all the tenets of the hippie lifestyle—political activism, cannabis, peace, free love, the whole shebang. The Tribe's golden child is Claude, a Queens-born anglophile who hesitates destroying his draft card because of his family's deeply-ingrained conservative pro-war beliefs.
Naturally, Claude's got plenty of reasons not to report for duty, many of which are encapsulated in a second act musical number—brought on by a psychedelic drug trip—that covers our nation's history of religious zealotry, military aggression, racism, and imperialism. Slaves sing and dance like a '60s Motown group and nuns strangle monks as Hair skewers centuries of oppressive status quo.
Biting satire isn't the only device Hair uses to convey its urgent advocacy of world peace and the abolition of war and fear through love. A strong idealistic sincerity courses through the show as if it were America's very lifeblood. Director Diane Paulus's starkly unsentimental production exemplifies this characteristic best with Claude's symbolic placement of a flower in a G.I.'s machine gun barrel while Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays underneath. Flower power, indeed.
Then there is Hair's iconic score, which is about as well-known as any in musical theatre. Any show that boasts "Aquarius," "Let the Sun Shine In," and the jubilant title song already has plenty going for it, and this production takes full advantage of that. The music is performed exceptionally well by music director Nadia Digiallonardo's crackerjack orchestra (mounted in full view of the audience on an upstage center bandstand) and a superbly talented cast who sing their hearts out and sound exquisite together. But, a big part of the reason why the songs work so well is because of their context. Ragni, Rado, and McDermot connect them to Hair's overall themes: "Hair" is a joyously defiant expression of self, while "Let the Sun Shine In" turns into a moving last-gasp desperation plea for peace and unity (instead of the bouncy anthem it's become over the years).
Even though it's an overtly political work, Hair is supposed to be loads of fun, too. And this production is just that, thanks to Paulus's outstanding direction and some terrific performances. As Berger, Will Swenson gets the crowd on his side right at the start when takes his pants off and hands them to an audience member in the front row: "Hey lady, will you hold my pants for me?" He only becomes more of a likable scoundrel from there. Jonathan Groff is excellent as Claude, handling the character's draft card dilemma with the same polish and urgency he displayed in Spring Awakening. In the hands of both Swenson and Groff, Berger and Claude become people the audience can relate to and root for. Bryce Ryness (as fellow Tribesman, Woof), Kacie Sheik (as Claude's unrequited admirer, Jeanie), and Andrew Kober and Megan Lawrence (as Hair's requisite stodgy adults) also stand out in an ensemble that bubbles over with talent.
By engaging the audience emotionally through music, laughter, and inevitable tragedy, Hair succeeds as both entertainment and a political statement. By the time the show reaches its explosive and cathartic conclusion—in which the audience is invited on stage to dance with the cast (an ingenious bit of showmanship which I encourage everyone to join in on: my companion and I did, and we loved it)—Hair has made its point with skilled efficiency: it's just as easy to unite over love as it is to divide over hate and fear, so why not choose love? It's hard to argue with a show this uplifting. Go to the Delacorte, jump on the peace train, and let the sun shine in.