On April 29, 1968, a new musical called HAIR opened at the Biltmore Theatre in New York. This “Americal Tribal Love-Rock Musical” had a completely different style of music from those that went before it. It was also art imitating life right on stage. Whether or not you agreed with, or even liked, what you saw, the fact of the matter was that it was authentic. This can make people feel uncomfortable in today’s politically correct world of 2012.
This latest production of HAIR, directed by Diane Paulus, won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. It was also nominated for an additional seven Tonys. While one can argue that is an easy feat for a musical with popular songs like these, I would argue that casting is more imperative. When the original HAIR was being cast, some of the “tribe” were pulled off the street and asked if they could sing simply because they had the “look”. This latest production doesn’t need to do that as these people can obviously sing superbly well. In fact, I just wanted them to keep singing, as sometimes when there is too much dialogue, the timing suffers. The gelling of the tribe members is what is most important as well as the trust this “whole haggle of hippi” has in each other.
HAIR opens with probably its second most popular song, “Aquarius”, led by the soaring voice of Dionne (Phyre Hawkins). Then we are introduced to Berger (Steel Burkhardt), the disruptive, completely wild opposite of his innocent friend Claude (Marshal Kennedy Carolan). To be in HAIR, you must have no inhibitions, and that goes doubly true for Berger. The beginning of this production’s legendary audience interaction happens when he asks an audience member to hold his pants. The funniest moment of the night came from that audience member when he responded “Do I have to?”
The songs in HAIR act not only to make the audience sing and dance but also to introduce various characters. Woof (Ryan Link) is all about love and just wants everyone to be happy. Hud (the fabulous Mike Evariste) is fighting for civil rights during an extremely challenging time. The tortured Claude is torn on whether to burn his draft card in his mini-society of pacifist friends or go to Vietnam. The pregnant Jeanie (Aleque Reid), innocent Crissy (Kaitlin Kiyan), and activist Sheila (Sara King) fight to keep irresistible hope.
Liz Baltes, Will Blum, and Lee Zarrett have the very challenging task of playing a multitude of parts throughout HAIR. Blum is fantastic as a tourist “woman” who comes across the tribe on a trip with her husband. This sets the stage for the title song, which practically had me wanting to stand on my chair to dance. For much of the show, you never know where to look, as cast members are right next to you, up in the balconies, or on stage. This is especially true for the audience clap-along and protest song, “Ain’t Got No”.
The infamous nude scene to end Act One happens a little unexpectedly. As it says in my press packet, “There is a dimly lit 20-second scene with nudity that is non-sexual in nature.” I agree with the dimly lit part, but it was a bit longer than 20 seconds. There is also mature language, sexual content, and simulated drug use in HAIR. Parents, consider yourselves warned.
Act Two opens in a “subtle” way with the tribe roaring back onstage for “Electric Blues”. There is no flickering of the lights here. Burkhardt even went to sit in an audience member’s seat, waiting for him to come back from the restroom.
This act, which includes Claude’s hallucination after “Walking in Space”, is a strange dichotomy. The songs, sometimes very upbeat and considered “happy” songs, are really about Claude’s choice (an example is “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”). One of the most popular songs ever performed on the Broadway stage, “Let the Sunshine In”, is very often considered a happy song (I’ve even seen it used in a commercial for raisins, for goodness sake), but it is just plain haunting in HAIR.
HAIR has moments where it contains “stand-on-your-seats-and-dance” fun, and it has moments of utter sadness and heartbreak. One thing is for certain, however. HAIR is what you want it to be. Interact with the “tribe” as much or as little as you want to. Make it yours. The Academy of Music is lucky to have Paulus’s production, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado
Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
January 3-8, 2012
Academy of Music
Broad and Locust Sts.