by Sam Juliano
A pregnant hippie takes a toke on a joint and proclaims: “As Mary Magdalene once said, ‘Jesus, I’m getting stoned!’ In the free-spirited, wildly anarchic and gleefully interactive Hair, which is winding down its successful run at the historic Hirschfeld Theatre on 45th Street, one is reminded of a number of theatrical properties that dotted the cultural landscape in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are closest to Hair in spirit and form, but Hair stands alone in the sense that it is loosely based on one consideration: whether or not “Claude” will allow himself to be drafted. Claude spends most of his time hanging out with his friends in the park. These are kids who have no qualms burning their draft cards, but Claude is still influenced by his middle-class upbringing as can be evidenced by flashback sequences featuring his parents in cartoon incarnations. Of course Claude’s fate ultimately delivers an overwhelming final blow to theatregoers, before the rafters of the theatre are shaken by an all-out lovefest that includes audience members, chapping and cheering to the soulful strains of “Let the Sunshine In.” Director Diane Paulus’ spirited revival of the beloved musical, which won the Tony for Best Revival in 2009 ably delineates Claude’s inner conflict with conscience and upbringing, and this deft and necessary simplification of Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s sprawling book serves as the work’s most profound emotional underpinning.
But most theatregoers who best appreciate Hair are those who were brought up during the time time of cultural upheaval, peace marches and that were staged at peak of the hippie movement and the doctrination of Woodstock and the anti-war crusade. The same baby boomer set were apt to appreciate, if not become ravenously attuned to the songs (by Galt MacDermott, and the aforementioned Ragni and Rado) that were popularized on AM radio and on vinyl, and these include the Fifth Dimension’s Number 1 hit “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshine,” Three Dog Night’s “Easy to be Hard” and the Cowsills’ “Hair” which reached Number 2 on the pop charts. Fortunately, these songs are not acid-infused, but in a popular vein, with soaring lyrical harmonies. At the heart of Hair are these infectious, irresistible songs.
Before the current production reached the Hirschfeld, the backdrop of Central Park (where the revival road began) contributed to the free-spirited, open air essence of the show, but set designer Scott Pask still manages to turn this spacious theatre into a peace lover’s playground, and that includes glowing radiators on the back wall of the stage with a painted sunrise that’s dotted with this stars. The band is housed in some scaffolding and an old truck. Kevin Adams’ lighting design allows for simulated sunlight streaming from the rafters to the stage, and there’s a smoky concert-like quality that impressively informs the choral delivery of some of the best rock music ever written for a stage musical.
The element of audience involvement, which caused some critics to cry “audience molestation” is the show’s singular trademark, and when it finally erupts into the rousing stage party at it’s end, one can be blamed for letting it all hang out. When Berger dashes up and down the aisles touching and feeling theatre goers (I got an intense head rub myself, which of course was to stimulate my baldness) shortly after the play’s midway point, we already know all about the communal message, and the temporary suspension of the rules and regulations that normally won’t allow one to cross certain lines. Flower-child ushers simultaneously hand out flowers and brightly-colored flyers (inviting audience members to attend a demonstration) and still others seemed to simulate fornication. The activity in the aisles did serve as somewhat of a distraction for those who couldn’t (understandably) keep an eye on the stage and what might have been going on right next to them at the same time. In any case, Paulus does a fine job integrating what might usually be seen as a series of disconnected vignettes, into a story held together by the Vietnam draft matter, and the combination of Claude’s spending his days and nights in a frenzy of free love, drugs, and “campaigning for the cause” help to firm up the infrastructure of a work forever known for it’s defiant non-conformity. There is a depth of character and feeling in this production, as fear yields to uncertainty, and even the soaring ‘Aquarius’ anthem can’t obscure the cries for help evident throughout this work of surrender and resilience.
Ace Young’s performance as the scene-stealing Burger accentuates the play’s infectious spirit, (even with an edge of cruelty and desparation that defines his character) and much of the same can be said for Paris Remillard as Claude, Jason Wooten as Woof, Jeannette Bayardelle as Dionne, Diana deGarmo as Sheila, Wallace Smith as Hud, and a number of others in the “Tribe.” Each of the characters have their own problems, and they are conveyed piercingly in dialogue and song, and it’s tough not thinking about their individual fates.
Hair is a time-capsule that reaches the present with universal issues that in varient forms can apply to today’s youth, a time when dislocation, fear of change, and the need to integrate can be as vital as any issue, past or present. It’s also a stage party, and an instigation to celebrate.
Note: Lucille, Melanie and I attended the Thursday, June 17th performance of ‘Hair’ at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, a week before the show is scheduled to close after an impressive run and a Tony Award for Best Revival. Tickets can still be obtained from the box office and the TKTS line at Times Square for the remaining performance. We had burgers at an eatery on 8th Avenue around the corner from the theatre. Lucille and Melanie were thrilled to get their pictures taken with Ace Young at the stage door after the performance.