The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 13, 2011
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. Cast: Steel Burkhardt, Matt DeAngelis, Phyre Hawkins, Kaitlin Kiyan, Darius Nichols, Paris Remillard, Kacie Sheik, Caren Lyn Tackett, and Shaleah Adkisson, Emily Afton, Nicholas Belton, Larkin Bogan, Corey Bradley, Marshal Kennedy Carolan, Laura Dreyfuss, Mike Evariste, Lulu Fall, Tripp Fountain, Nkrumah Gatling, Allison Guinn, Sara King, Josh Lamon, John Moauro, Christine Nolan, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Arbender Robinson, Cailan Rose, Tanesha Ross, Jen Sese, Lee Zarrett.
Of course, that last sentence should not be news to anyone who seriously follows the theatre scene. And when it comes to the show in question, Hair, old news is the only news there is. James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt McDermot's 1967 hippy-pop protest against LBJ and the era's closed-mindedness was ancient even before its 1968 Broadway transfer. Now it's positively ossified, only somehow avoiding "relic" status by virtue of its strangely spectacular score, which to this day embodies youthfulness and unrealistic hope better than almost any other in the last five decades has managed.
But judged strictly on its theatrical content and not any wistfulness or nostalgia it may accidentally generate, this show does not possess many other tangible virtues. That much is evident in this production, over which director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage have presided with consummate energy and appropriateness without making a successful (or even coherent) contemporary case for the play they're supposedly staging. The teenage hippies at its center, fretting about the draft and promoting free love, are now extinct; and the then-hot lyric references to the likes of the IRT and Margaret Mead now register as little more than tuneful question marks.
True, the troubles of adolescents facing down their parents and a society that they just know can't possibly understand them is a topic that's eternally fresh, but that's never been what the show is about. It's always functioned as a snapshot of a culture that was far removed from that of the typical Main Stem audience, and thus possesses no valid claim to universality. Paulus's attempts to thrust relevancy onto it are, at best, hog-fisted: Her final tableau doesn't resolve the central issue of the show — what becoming an adult really meant back then — so much as capture the liberal zeitgeist of a different era: 2007, when the earliest version of this production began as a series of concerts at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where it would play full-scale a year later before moving to Broadway the following spring.
Ultimately, then, Paulus's version of Hair has always been an anesthetic mounting of an antiquated work. These qualities are only amplified by this cast, who evince none of the verve and individuality of even miscast members of the revival's roles' creators. With the exception of Caren Lyn Tackett as a spunky and intelligent Sheila, the sole performer of any notable individuality is Kacie Sheik, who plays the pregnant Jeanie with a gently aching desperation that's at emotional and even visual odds with the flower-child persona she works so hard to cultivate. (Unsurprisingly, Sheik did this production the first time around.)
Otherwise, this version is laden with the likes of Paris Remillard, who's harsh and unsympathetic as Claude, the boy who isn't sure whether his draft notice should inspire his rebellion or his acquiescence; Steel Burkhardt, who pushes too hard as Berger, who doesn't want his fun interrupted for any reason; and even a makeshift-theater-commune set (by Scott Pask) and sound design (by Acme Sound Partners) that lack any sense of finer-edged detail and pointedly suggest the one-size-fits-none aesthetic that's too often taken for granted as a touring must. (Michael McDonald's down-and-dirty costumes and Kevin Adams mood-altering lights have deftly survived the translation.)
The punch line of all this, laughless as it may be, is that even these myriad failings are not enough to chop Hair off at the roots. Armitage's drugged-out dances are a dizzying pleasure, and they higlight the quality of a song stack that is much better than it ever needed to be. From the undulating "Aquarius" linking earthly freedom with that of the stars to the infectious (and portentous) "I Got Life" to the aching "Easy to Be Hard" and the stirring title song, "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sunshine In," the score is both irresistible and unassailable.
That's not nothing, especially following a Broadway season in which only one new musical could rustle up a truly memorable score — and that show, The Scottsboro Boys, was trapped in its own kind of time warp. Still, one can't help but wish it added up to more. For that to happen, however, we'd need a new show that spoke as clearly of today's strife as this one did of that of the late 1960s. But who would be the subjects of that one? The Tea Party? The mind reels, but also jolts at the thought of a serious social musical that, unlike this Hair, doesn't try to pretend the popular politics of 45 years ago are necessarily equivalent to those of today.