Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Music by Galt MacDermot
Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado
Directed by Diane Paulus
Choreographed by Karole Armitage
Starring Will Swenson, Gavin Creel, Sasha Allen, Allison Case, Caissie Levy, Kacie Sheik, Darius Nichols, Bryce Ryness, Jackie Burns, Lauren Elder, Allison Guinn, Kaitlyn Kiyan

Performances from March 6, 2009
Al Hirschfeld Theater
302 West 45th Street

Creel and Swenson in Hair (photo: Joan Marcus)
What’s most amazing about the exhilarating revival of Hair is that the ultimate tie-dyed relic of its era conversely does not seem dated in the least. Once you settle into your seat in the Al Hirschfeld Theater and hear the opening notes of the famous anthem “Aquarius,” you are immediately transported back in time to 1967, but the musical remains as fresh and relevant as if its creators had just unleashed it on unsuspecting downtown audiences at its off-Broadway opening forty years ago.

What makes Hair unique is not that it was the first truly successful rock musical; or that it was the first generation gap show to reveal the counterculture’s protest of our government’s botching of the Vietnam War; or that it brought the hippie lifestyle to the stage for the first time—its music, its politics, its defiant attitude. It was all these things, but the genius of Hair is that it takes these elements and molds them into a cohesive musical statement that wrings emotional truths out of what in lesser hands would be its platitudes: the universal themes of love and peace, and of rebellion and reconciliation. Its refusal to make grand pronouncements is the true greatness of Hair. And we need its weary but genuine optimism more than ever.

The East Village tribe of free lovers, casual drug users and anti-war activists are humanized by their very ordinariness: these kids—most just out of, or expelled from, high school—are learning about the ways of a very cruel world. The nominal hero is Claude, a Flushing kid who doesn’t burn his draft card with the others and ends up shipped off to ‘Nam. Otherwise, this rainbow coalition is simply a group of young Americans who recoil from everything their president, congressmen, principals, teachers, policemen, and parents—in other words, every authority figure—stand for. It’s not subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical for nothing: Hair is one of the most patriotic shows to ever grace Broadway.

Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book and lyrics, wedded to Galt MacDermot’s music, still resonate. The score is an exuberant amalgam of varied rock styles, from acid rock (“Ain’t Got No”), folk (“Frank Mills”) and blues (“Electric Blues”) to funk (“Walking in Space”), soul (“Black Boys”/”White Boys”) and pure pop (“Good Morning, Starshine”). The MacDermot songs’ primitive power builds in intensity throughout, from the anthemic “Aquarius” and climactic Act I ballad “Where Do I Go” to the throat-grabbing soulfulness of Act II’s finale, as Claude’s solo number “The Flesh Failures” segues into the full-throttle Tribe medley, “Eyes Look Your Last” and “Let the Sunshine In,” which gives Hair its shattering, uplifting climax. (Unbelievably, “Sunshine” was not in the original production, only added—along with a dozen other numbers—when the show went to Broadway.) Led by keyboardist Nadia Digiallondaro, the 12-musician house band (including MacDermot’s son Vincent) blows the roof off the joint with its raucous playing.

Director Diane Paulus has retained the charm of last summer’s Central Park staging, using the theater’s interior space to special advantage. Along with running through the aisles and into the audience, tribe members also climb up and around the balcony and boxes, giving the show a more inclusive feel. Karole Armitage’s inventive choreography also registers more strongly, and her best work—the dazzling set pieces comprising Claude’s bad acid trip that visualizes America’s history of racism and warfare—is more stirring than before. Michael McDonald’s ‘60s costumes, Scott Pask’s psychedelic scenery and Kevin Adams’ bracing lighting design all contribute to the reincarnation, not embalming, of an era.

In a large and exceptional cast, there are two standouts. Will Swenson plays the free-spirited Berger, who guides the audience through this hazy maze: although he dominates the first act with several songs, Berger fades into the background for much of Act II—but Swenson’s charismatic performance keeps him front and center throughout. Cast newcomer Gavin Creel makes Claude less a symbol of ultimate sacrifice than a sympathetic, real person by sheer charm and a strong set of pipes.

The raw emotions unleashed in Claude’s song “The Flesh Failures” lead to a final deathly tableau; conversely, after the curtain calls, the stage was filled with euphoric audience members, invited by the cast to sing and dance in jubilation. The evening I attended, the stage could barely hold everyone.

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