The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 31, 2009
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Book & lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado. Music by Galt MacDermot. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Karole Armitage. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Michael McDonald. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Galt MacDermot. Music Director Nadia Digiallonardo. Music Coordinator Seymour Red Press. Wig design by Gerard Kelly. Cast: Sasha Allen, Allison Case, Gavin Creel, Caissie Levy, Darius Nichols, Bryce Ryness, Kacie Sheik, Will Swenson, and Ato Blankson-Wood, Steel Burkhardt, Jackie Burns, Briana Carlson-Goodman, Lauren Elder, Allison Guinn, Chasten Harmon, Anthony Hollock, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Kaitlin Kiyan, Andrew Kober, Josh Lamon, Megan Lawrence, Nicole Lewis, Ryan Link, John Moauro, Brandon Pearson, Megan Reinking, Paris Remillard, Michael James Scott, Saycon Sengbloh, Maya Sharpe, Theo Stockman, Tommar Wilson. Originally produced in 1967 and subsequently revived in 2008 by The Public Theater.
In fact, the copious shaping and reconceiving done to this production since it appeared at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last August should serve as an object lesson for all similar transfers. Paulus, Armitage, and designers Scott Pask (sets), Michael McDonald (costumes), and Kevin Adams (lights) haven’t blindly recreated a steamy summer night in the Park. Instead, they’ve truly adapted their aesthetic: The setting is no longer a Park clearing, but a Broadway theater, visible to the back wall, that’s been occupied and transformed by supporters of free love, pacifism, and a psychedelic color palette.
You’ll see the bricks painted with a suggestively optimistic sunrise, the rocking band (conducted by Nadia Digiallonardo) going at it beside and atop a TechniColor truck, and a super-stylish throbbing-starburst-pattern carpet covering the floor. This group of interior anti-decorating anarchists thrust themselves into an unwilling Park last year, trying (and failing) to make it their home away from home. But now they’ve succeeded in converting a cathedral to commercialism into an edifice celebrating and dedicated to pursuing all of life’s most positive possibilities.
So the experience of watching this incarnation is even closer to what it should be: a field trip to the domain of the most human-looking aliens possible. And the denizens you spend two and a half hours watching fully own their space, from the spacious stage to the box seats to even certain members of the audience when the fancy grabs them. (Things get more than a little touchy feely, especially if you’re sitting on the aisle.) This is their Nirvana, and you’re welcome to visit - just remember that you’re there on their terms.
And that’s Hair’s inescapable problem, if one less indicative of this production than with the general notion of this 1967 show in 2009 at all. Because they and you are no longer occupying, even tangentially, the same plane of existence. What once was a group that was ignored and scorned by outsiders having their very vocal say to anyone who dared to listen is now a slice of long-forgotten life - or, worse, a show. It’s a good one: Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book and lyrics are whip-cracking smart, and Galt MacDermot’s music radio-inspired and disco-inspiring music is unassailable. But it still sacrifices all of its power and punch because it’s utterly at odds with the world outside the theater.
Because Hair was amazingly successful the first time around (it transferred to Broadway from The Public Theater and ran 1,750 performances), it was inevitable it would be entered into the Broadway revival cycle. But it resists this treatment in a way Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, and similar titles do not because it’s inextricably tied to and concerned with the political climate that birthed it. President Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War with its attendant (and terrifying) draft, and of course the hippies themselves who constitute nearly the entire dramatis personae, forever brand this as a period piece. It’s like resuscitating Clifford Odets’s 1935 rallying cry Waiting for Lefty: You might still be able to appreciate the quality, but the union-or-bust message that once made it groundbreaking is now at best a curiosity.
The show, then, is drawn by its songs rather than its characters. This makes for any number of thrilling musical moments, especially with Armitage’s slithering popcorn-popper dances consuming the stage, and songs with the buoyant tunefulness of “Manchester, England,” “I Got Life,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” the order of the day. But the score, like everything else, is so steeped in their era that they force social relevance to stay onstage. How many today know or care what “the age of Aquarius” meant, who Margaret Mead was, or why either deserves a song?
Paulus, Armitage, and their cast have toiled scrupulously hard to ensure their production could survive outside the allure of the Park and its free tickets, and they’ve unquestionably succeeded. The performers that have carried over (most notably Swenson, but also Bryce Ryness as the guy with a crush on Mick Jagger and Allison Case, who’s so warmly charming singing “Frank Mills”) have only expanded their portrayals, and the newcomers (an astonishingly energetic and intense Creel, Sasha Allen as the “Aquarius” songstress, and Caissie Levy as Berger’s “Easy to Be Hard” girlfriend Sheila) fit in seamlessly. Not a one lets you feel you’re seeing less than the best that could possibly be done with this material in 2009.
But you’re still seeing a 42-year-old show pretending it’s the newest, hippest thing around when it’s as out of touch as the parents (delightfully played by Megan Lawrence and Andrew Kober) it makes fun of. However top-notch this production might be, it never makes you understand the piece’s depth or insight, and thus ultimately fails. What Broadway desperately needs is a new Hair, not a new production of the old one: something that will identify today’s youth, with its fears and its loves and its music, to the mainstream and encourage a more complex understanding of where they’re taking the world. That would be a far richer tribute to this work’s lasting legacy than this accomplished, enticing, and thoroughly meaningless revival.