Call it a comeback. Or a regrowth. Either way, the Tony-winning revival of "Hair" is back on Broadway.
As someone who doesn't tire of hearing its great songs, including the joyful "Aquarius," plaintive "Where Do I Go?" and giddy-goofy "Good Morning Starshine," I'm extending a warm welcome.
The show continues to make for an easygoing evening. And it would be a whole lot more fun if it would just chill and trim some of the hard sell.
More on that, but first, a quick recap.
I've already had a few brushes with this production of Gerome Ragni and James Rado (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot's (music) 1968 anti-establishment revue, thanks to Public Theater presentations.
Two of them were in Central Park, first as a concert in 2007, then as a full staging a year later. The most recent was on Broadway in 2009, when the production, directed by Diane Paulus, moved to Broadway and snagged its Tony.
Now the touring company has set down for the summer at the St. James Theatre.
The very loose story in this "American tribal love-rock musical" follows young New Yorkers searching for passion and peace and dealing with life and death during the craziness of Vietnam War.
Satirical one minute, touching the next, then raucous, the musical's message of "peace, flowers, freedom, happiness" remains front and center.
Ditto the once edgy (but no longer shocking) nudity, profanity and tunes about about sex and drugs that have since paved the way for other envelope-pushing shows.
The current cast is composed of actors from Central Park, Broadway and London, plus newcomers.
The performances are a mixed bag. As the hippie tribe's self-anointed ringmaster, Berger, Steel Burkhardt stands out. He's a burly bundle of erotic energy.
As the confused Claude, who yearns for peace but goes to war, Paris Remillard is appealing but can't quite muster the empathy summoned by previous occupants of his role.
Kacie Sheik, Phyre Hawkins and Caren Lyn Tackett prove capable in featured female roles.
This show's biggest issue is a pervasive amped-up, overzealous tone, whether it's onstage or as the tribe constantly roams the audience. One guy near me got a flower, a flyer, two head rubs. I was waiting for him to get a haircut.
A major casualty of onstage overkill is the naive and tender "Frank Mills," a song about a girl's chance encounter. Its sweetness has been swamped by a showy performance.
Splitting hairs? Possibly. It's a delicate balance. But all that overly eager-to-please pushiness goes against the grain. It makes you wonder: What are these hippies smoking? They're supposed to be laid-back, aren't they?
What "The Nutcracker" is to December, "Hair" is to July. Not only does the musical take place during the Summer of Love, but its "turn on, tune in, drop out" message feels particularly right when the temperature hits the 90s and everybody mellows.
Tellingly, Diane Paulus' Tony-winning revival first surfaced in the summer of 2008, at the Delacorte in Central Park. The show then ran on Broadway for more than a year, and now the national tour has parked itself at the St. James for a limited run during the dog days.
Yes, this is a road company, and you have to wonder what it means for Broadway to become just another pit stop -- yet another step toward Vegas-ization?
In this case, the production is looking and sounding good, because it's impossible to keep this "Hair" down. The quintessential rock musical casually tosses off hits, barely slowing down for clever, infernally catchy songs that would stop any other show in its tracks. Paulus' dynamic staging is nearly foolproof, and in total sync with Karole Armitage's perpetual-motion choreography.
Some nitpicking: A few actors, including Steel Burkhardt as charismatic Tribe ringleader Berger, think that running their hands through their manes is an acceptable substitute for acting. And the "American Idol" generation appears to distrust vulnerability when singing, as evidenced by Kaitlin Kiyan's assertive rendition of the wistful ballad "Frank Mills."
Yet the main issue isn't so much with individual performances as with the group synergy. Though the book includes a couple of standout parts, Paulus understood that the essence of "Hair" is the ensemble. But this cast doesn't quite gel into a whole: There are good parts, but they don't always add up.
Yet caveats aside, this "Hair" remains one of the most spirited, kinetic musicals on Broadway, and when it hits the bull's-eye -- which is often -- it hits it hard.
Phyre Hawkins' Dionne (who gets things started with "Aquarius") and Darius Nichols' sexy-growly, Afro'ed Hud effortlessly emerge from the pack. It's also fun to watch the fierce glint in the eyes of Caren Lyn Tackett's determined Sheila -- you can picture the 1967 student growing into a 2011 congresswoman.
Who would have thought a bunch of goofy hippies would age so well?
The kind of social networking taking place between actors and audience at the St. James Theater, where the recent Broadway revival of “Hair” has splashed down for a welcome return visit this summer, doesn’t require any fancy digital gadgets.
It’s a refreshingly low-tech matter of the bestowing of flowers, the laying on of friendly hands and urgent invocations to feel the love and agitate for peace. There is also, of course, the culminating dance party onstage allowing everyone to join in the ecstatic finale of Diane Paulus’s production of this beloved portrait of youth culture in the late 1960s. No iPad app required.
With the country on a collision course for political and financial deadlock and a continuing drumbeat of grim economic news resounding in our ears, it’s hard to resist the temptation to tune in, turn on and drop out, at least for one more heady evening in the company of this musical’s eager-eyed young visitors from a distant planet, the America of almost a half-century ago. From the perspective of our weary, unsettled times the turbulent period depicted in “Hair,” with its violent clashes over the Vietnam War and a groaning generation gap, seems like a vastly sweeter and simpler era.
Of course this jubilant musical never pretended to offer a nuanced or objective view of the social upheavals beginning to sweep the country during the later years of the Johnson administration. The book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado are a kaleidoscopic, encyclopedic celebration of the youth movement and its passions — sexual, political and pharmacological — set to the irresistible pop-rock melodies of Galt MacDermot.
I’m happy to report that this national touring company, featuring fresh-faced newcomers alongside performers from the Central Park, Broadway and London versions, has got plenty of life, brother. The hallmarks of Ms. Paulus’s production were its pulsating energy and its sincere conviction, and both are on continuous, sense-heightening display at the St. James.
Steel Burkhardt is a seductive Berger, the unofficial ringmaster of these informal revels. The generous intake of illicit substances seems to have addled Berger’s amiable mind. As he crawls among the audience like an inquisitive monkey, you get the sense that he really does see no distinction between the beaded, tie-dyed and patchouli-scented kids onstage and the less colorfully attired (and, for the most part, rather older) patrons in the audience.
Mr. Burkhardt sings with a clarion fervor, and flings his ample brown tresses as energetically as he does the fringed leather G-string tied around his hips. He’s a hyperactive hippie Dionysus whose spirits sour into immature petulance only when hints of discord threaten to interrupt the party.
As the more complicated Claude Bukowski, Flushing-bred but Manchester, England, obsessed, Paris Remillard exudes youthful good nature tempered by hints of inner conflict. His clean voice has a bright edge, and he brings wry humor to the exchanges with his concerned parents, played with just the right flavoring of caricature by Allison Guinn and Josh Lamon. Although Claude derides their values and resists their loving admonitions to conform, he feels a yearning to establish a fixed place in a world that he is beginning to find disorienting in its abandon.
The women’s roles in “Hair” are more vestigial, but they are filled with appealing warmth by Caren Lyn Tackett as the activist Sheila, Berger’s loving but neglected girlfriend; Kacie Sheik as the daffy Jeanie, who loves Claude, although she candidly admits that the father of her soon-to-be-born baby is an unknown “speed freak”; and Kaitlin Kiyan, who sings that lovely lament for a lost boy, Frank Mills, with unusual, appealing urgency.
As with “American Idiot,” the more angst-riddled tribal rock musical that was the last tenant at the St. James, the aimless youth in “Hair” live most persuasively not in the show’s scattered book but in its uplifting songs: rock music has been the lingua franca of young adulthood since its invention, and a rock musical that doesn’t give precedence to song over story probably isn’t telling the right story. “Hair” was the standard-bearer, and it’s easy to forgive the careless narrative because there is so much heart, humor and unquenchable good spirit in the songs.
True, a few sound like throwaway jingles advertising the fads of the era in tidy pop packages, and if you sit down to read the lyrics soberly line by line, you will quickly give up in despair at their brain-addling psychedelia. But Ms. Paulus’s cast sings them all with a ringing intensity that can be thrilling, funny, soothing or chilling depending on the mood being evoked. And the deceptively simple choreography of Karole Armitage, which channels the animal spirits of youth into undulant patterns that keep the cast surging across the stage and into the audience like waves rolling toward the shore, helps give structure to this diffuse material.
Having seen this production of “Hair” four times — twice in Central Park and twice on Broadway — I’m surprised at how spontaneous and pure it still feels, despite the sometimes kitschy trappings. (Does all the people onstage have to look as if they’ve invested a week’s paycheck in an outfit for a “Summer of Love” theme party?)
Most impressive is how Ms. Paulus and her performers bring the anarchic good spirits to a climax that is suddenly and strikingly dramatic, despite the simplicity of its staging. We move from jubilation to devastation in a heartbeat, made aware that the evening’s last spirited chorus — “Let the sunshine in” — is not a greeting to a promising new dawn but a plea to end an anguished night.