nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
July 11, 2011
When Hair originally premiered off-Broadway in 1967 (before its eventual transfer to Broadway in 1968), it was not only an edgy and original rock musical, but it set a new course for the future of musicals. Without Hair, Jonathan Larsen's Rent would not have existed and last year's frenetic American Idiot may have never seen the Broadway stage. In 2009, director Diane Paulus brought the legendary rock musical back to Broadway and snagged that year's Tony for Best Musical Revival. Now the original touring cast of this production has returned for a 10-week "Summer of Love" run at the St. James Theatre.
Hair is a spontaneous, energetic love-in with tons of colorful characters, preaching a message of love, anti-war, sexual freedom and basically everything else the '60s stood for. It follows a loose narrative about Claude, a hippie/flower child whose number comes up in the Vietnam War draft. As his "tribe" protests and burns their draft cards, Claude finds himself feeling an inexplicable obligation to his fate.
The show's style is more of a loose character piece with tons of audience interaction than that of a traditional heavily-plotted play, centering around rock-pop musical numbers springing up every few lines. At times, the book is a convoluted mess and the flow of the script is a bit choppy. Hair often tries to do everything, all of the time. But it is a credit to Paulus and her fantastic, vigorous cast, that this revival is able to navigate skillfully around these potential pitfalls.
The show is a high-octane, splendidly fun ride from beginning to end. The cast attacks the script and musical numbers with such commitment, heart and energy that it's hard not to have as much fun as it seems like they're having. Steel Burkhardt's Berger is hilarious, flaky, frustrating, and full of heart—all wrapped into one package. His introduction at the top of the show and playful interplay with the audience is one of the highlights. Caren Lyn Tackett, as Sheila, glides around the stage with a beautiful grace—it's not hard to see why Claude and Berger are in love with her—and she nails her musical numbers with a balance of vocal power and gentleness. Kacie Sheik is a joy as the flighty, needy pregnant hippie, Jeanie. The rest of the tribe (the ensemble) has wonderful chemistry and makes everything seem almost as if they're making the whole show up on the spot.
The band and cast bring new life to Galt MacDermot's classic rock score and Gerome Ragni and James Rado's lyrics. Karole Armitage's choreography brings a feverish, frenetic feel to every musical number and her placement of the cast throughout the audience in most of the numbers makes every audience member feel very much a part of the show (the highlights being "Hair" and the curtain call reprise of "Let the Sunshine In"—in which the entire audience is invited on stage with the cast to dance).
Scott Pask's scenic design is suitably sparse and malleable, providing plenty of places and levels for the cast to hang and appear from during the show. Kevin Adams's psychedelic lighting design turns the stage into a rainbow every musical number.
One of the only areas in which this revival is lacking is its relevance. Hair originally made a splash because of its edgy themes and content. Now, it's commonplace to see nudity on stage, even on Broadway. The "established society" in which we live is much more sexually and socially liberal than in the '60s, so many of the racial undertones (as in "Black Boys") and ideas of free love don't make quite the same impact as they once did. Even while you could make an argument that this generation has had its anti-war movement with Iraq and Afghanistan, it pales in comparison to Vietnam. Hair now comes across as a nostalgic wink to the "fun and wacky" sixties, rather than a serious social commentary in a decade that could be very volatile and dangerous to those who lived through it. However, while this production may lack in relevance and true edginess, it keeps Hair's vitality.
Broadway's revival of Hair takes us for a fun, non-stop energetic ride and we are right in the center of it. It is a beautiful show, with a beautiful design, and a beautiful cast, and it makes the audience feel a bit more beautiful all over for having been there. And, at its heart, that's what Hair is really about: just how beautiful the world around us is, despite all of its flaws.