5 POINTS OR LESS:
one of the best musical ensembles on Broadway • cast members run throughout the house, bringing even those in cheap seats into the action • story is minor, but it doesn’t matter • there is nudity (for those who care), but it is artfully done • probably the best musical revival currently playing on Broadway
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent revival, full of energy and poignancy, which may well make you see Hair in a new light.
Even the casual theatre-goer is probably at least somewhat familiar with Hair. If you haven’t seen it on stage, you’ve likely seen the movie, and you’ve certainly heard some of the music... “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” are two of the best-known songs. Many call it the first rock musical (although the music, even by the standards of the late 1960s when it was written, is not really rock). You may also know that Hair is essentially a collection of songs sung by a group of hippies called “The Tribe," and while there is a loose story that threads the songs together, Hair is traditionally more about the music and less about the story and characters.
This revival of Hair, a re-tooling of the version that played in Central Park last summer, is both everything you might expect Hair to be, and also much more than you might possibly imagine. Yes, the story is still minor, but somehow here that doesn’t really matter. This revival makes clear that Hair, if done well, is really about a group of people. They experience, they grow, they change, and most importantly, they lose their innocence while trying to hold on to their hope. Director Diane Paulus has done amazing work with her ensemble; I often felt as if this was a group of kids playing around, and when one person started doing something, the rest would join in. Each actor manages to create a character, but no one character takes over the Tribe. Don’t go see Hair expecting a typical linear narrative; a story does exist, but if you focus on it, you will miss what is most important.
A few characters are somewhat developed, most notably Claude (Gavin Creel) and Berger (Will Swenson), both Tony nominees. Swenson was probably my favorite. He bounds around the stage and captures the silliness of someone who might be both incredibly naïve and surprisingly astute. Woof (Bryce Ryness) and Sheila (Caissie Levy) are also briefly sketched in; we see them change briefly during the evening, mostly in their interactions with Claude and Berger. But most of the characters, even supporting ones like Dionne (Sasha Allen) and Crissy (Allison Case), are little more than people who sing a few solos during the evening. This is not to take anything away from their performances, Allen is fierce during the opening number “Aquarius” and Crissy does a lovely “Frank Mills." But do we really care if Crissy ever finds Frank? No. It is enough to see that one of The Tribe is “in love” with a man she will never find. And I guess that is one way to see this production of Hair, as a collection of views of The Tribe, both seen through its individual members, and through The Tribe as a whole.
As the evening progresses, The Tribe somehow changes. It is difficult to pin down exactly how this happens, but what was light and playful and innocent in Act I melds into something darker. While The Tribe does not necessarily grow up, they do begin to realize that the world outside is real and can hurt them. Their youthful vigor and the desire to fool around all day does not go away, but it loses its willful innocence. The Tribe seems to go from a group of teenagers who simply want to rebel against something to a group of young adults who have found that just rebelling may not be enough, but are not sure what else to do. This all leads to an ending that is extraordinarily simple yet extremely profound, which is then followed by a group curtain call after which the entire audience is invited on stage to dance. It sounds hokey, but I found the last 20 minutes (including the audience going on stage) to be truly extraordinary.
I’ll admit, I had doubts when I heard Hair was transferring to Broadway. Although I didn’t see it in Central Park, I wondered if we really needed another revival of Hair (in the last few years it has been produced both at City Center Encores and as a concert to benefit the Actors Fund, not to mention the countless regional productions across the country). The cynic in me thought that while Hair might have seemed special outside in Central Park, it would lose this magic in a commercial Broadway theatre. I’m so glad I was wrong. This is a terrific production, one that works extremely well in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Cast members scamper throughout the entire house...they quickly leap up to the Mezzanine and run to the very back of the theatre. The entire audience is brought into The Tribe, so don’t worry if you are sitting in cheaper seats, this is one musical that somehow feels intimate wherever you sit.
Hair is not suddenly my favorite musical. As wonderful as this production is, Hair is still a collection of songs loosely strung together and will always take second place (in my opinion) to musicals with stronger books. But what makes this production special is that it isn’t content simply to portray a group of hippies. Indeed, the fact that these are 1967 counter-culture youth (or at least, youth playing at being part of the counter-culture) is almost immaterial. This production of Hair made me realize that this show does not really need to be about hippies at all. Some critics of the original production claimed that Hair was a sanitized portrayal of youth counter-culture, cleaned up for a commercial audience. And while this may be true, it misses the point that at its best, Hair is really about youth and uncertainty and hope.
(Hair plays at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 7:30pm. Beginning June 8th, performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Running time is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Tickets are $37- $122, and there is a lottery for $25 box seats (cash only). The lotto drawing is 2 hours before curtain, and they start taking names 30 minutes before that. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and hairbroadway.com for more information.)