In 2010, your initial reaction to the iconic '60s musical "Hair" might be a yawn.
A show without a plot to speak of? They've long been a dime a dozen. Nudity? Please. Some seasons, you can't find a show without it. Someone in drag? See previous answer. Anti-establishment preachy-ness? As if we've ever run out of that. Heck, even hip-hugging jeans are back.
But, as last year's Tony Award-winning Public Theater revival makes plain, there's a force churning beneath the "American Tribal Love Rock Musical" that can jolt even jaded theatergoers out of condescension and ennui. The shock value is no longer high, but it turns out that, despite any number of now-quaint elements in this pathbreaking souvenir of theater history, "Hair" still has something significant to say to us about society, culture and, regrettably, war.
It's also just plain entertaining, which explains why that Public Theater production's arrival in Washington has the Kennedy Center Opera House feeling all groovy. The night I was there, several audience members of a certain age dressed in their old hippie clothes for the occasion, and I spotted more than one elderly gentleman, complete with hearing aid, gyrating away onstage during the audience-participation finale.
All that touchy-feely business can seem forced after a while; the cast spends a lot of time darting through the aisles and climbing over seat backs, stroking tresses on unsuspecting patrons as they go. Yet it's just another fundamental part of "Hair," and director Diane Paulus is remarkably faithful to the original spirit of the musical.
The creators — Gerome Ragni and James Rado (book and lyrics), Galt MacDermot (music) — crammed a counterculture and its causes, from the environment and antiwar protest to free love and recreational drugs, into this kinetic, affectionate product of its time. The result is a happening, man, where the singing and dancing were more about letting it all hang out than supporting any story line.
A whole mess of songs are crammed in there, too — three dozen or so. Quite a few are over before they start, aural snapshots that briskly deal with a subject and then clear the deck for the next. But the best of the songs remain curiously catchy, and they are given renewed vitality by a cast that, thankfully, doesn't try to milk any of them.
The wisp of a plot gets its spark of drama from the Vietnam War. When Claude, whose attempts to find himself include aping a working-class English accent, receives a draft notice, his flower-powered world no longer provides a comfort zone. A hallucinogenic trip (the show's weakest, sometimes painfully awkward section) leaves him more conflicted than ever.
Claude's fate, accompanied by one of the show's lasting hits, "Let the Sunshine In," delivers a slice of reality that still stings.
Paris Remillard, in a dynamic, deftly nuanced performance, manages to make Claude a fairly substantive character. Steel Burkhardt likewise fleshes out Berger, Claude's best buddy and the ringleader of the hippie flock. Both men offer vivid voices to complement deft acting skills.
Caren Lyn Tackett makes the most of her role as Sheila, the woman somewhere in the middle of Claude and Berger, and sings another classic, "Easy to Be Hard," with admirable restraint.
Within the well-matched ensemble (tightly choreographed by Karole Armitage), particularly vibrant sparks are set off by Darius Nichols (Hud), Matt DeAngelis (Woof) and Josh Lamon, who nearly steals the show in the drag cameo as the lady who wants a closer look at the long-haired creatures. And Kaitlin Kiyan (Crissy) makes an endearing impression singing "Frank Mills," one of the most clever, most off-beat numbers in the score. ( Barbra Streisand's little-known version of that song packs more of a punch, but it would, wouldn't it?)
Scott Pask's set and Michael McDonald's costumes, not to mention a tight band of musicians, all play a part in helping the attractive ensemble give this revived "Hair" its lift and sheen.
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