The national touring production of Hair was officially launched last Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House to a wildly enthusiastic if somewhat less-than-full house. Subtitled, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” the revival of this grand-daddy of all rock musicals attracted a happy, chatty, diverse crowd predominated by Baby Boomers eager to relive all the glory, freedom —and fear— of a pivotal, turbulent decade.
If that’s what you’re looking for too, this latest, eye-poppingly colorful iteration of Hair is the way to go. Its key hit songs are irresistible, still capturing the essence of America’s Vietnam War protest era as it was lived out on college campuses and hippie communes across the country. Familiar numbers like “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sun Shine In” seem never to go out of style, popping up sometimes in the oddest places, anywhere from movie soundtracks to oldies radio stations.
As with the original, it’s hard to be indifferent toward this production of Hair. If you’re seated in the orchestra, chances are that a wandering member of the hippie “tribe” will jump in your lap, check out your own hair, or invite you into the aisle to boogie. Hey, what’s peace and love for if not for sharing? This is a show that cheerfully ignores theater’s proverbial “fourth wall” from start to finish, unfolding not only on stage but all around you.
Though it’s now thoroughly ensconced as part of our culture, Hair had a surprisingly checkered early history. Penned by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the show’s book was put to music by Canadian composer Galt MacDermot. Its story was based on the authors’ personal experiences and their frequent encounters with New York City hippies.
Hair received its off-Broadway premiere in 1967, attracting enough attention to move to Broadway in 1968 after some significant revisions. That production, more or less, provided the basis for last year’s successful Broadway revival as well as the current touring show, which brings back several veteran cast members from the recent New York production.
Hair’s meandering plot mirrors the anarchy of youthful anti-war dropout communities in the late 1960s. From the swirling mélange of music and imagery that predominates in Act I, Claude (Paris Remillard) gradually emerges as the show’s nominal hippie hero. In receipt of a notice from his draft board, it looks like he’ll have to join the Army and head for Vietnam.
Predictably, Claude’s parents, including his World War II vet dad, push him to serve. But his hippie pals, led by the anarchistic Berger (Steel Burkhardt) and their sometime girlfriend Sheila (Caren Lyn Tackett), urge him to join with other male members of the hippie tribe in publicly burning their draft cards.
All of which leads to Claude’s hallucinatory drug trip in Act II, a weird amalgam of silly and horrifying visions, loaded with historical figures popping up in the oddest contexts. It’s a microcosm of the whole show, which essentially unfolds like a tune-filled acid trip. That look and feel, along with the show’s musical score–accentuated by Afro-rhythms and a hard, insistent backbeat— gives Hair its authentic and distinctive period edge.
The high-energy cast of Hair is enthusiastic, warm, and welcoming. The ensemble seems not to have quite jelled yet, in spite of the participation of several Broadway cast veterans. But as the tour progresses here and elsewhere, newer singer-actors should gradually inhabit their characters more effectively which can only add to the show’s good intentions.
The show’s leads plunged into the production headfirst and are largely responsible for the show’s vitality. As the loquacious, outgoing, yet paradox-plagued Berger, Steel Burkhardt made the biggest splash on opening night, reveling in the revolution and breaking down inhibitions wherever he found them.
As Claude, Paris Remillard was perhaps the best actor of the bunch, carrying his secrets and internal conflicts with a certain degree of nobility, celebrating the freedom of youth in “I Got Life,” while agonizing over hard decisions in Act I’s closing “Where Do I Go?” His self-mocking, good-natured performance of “Manchester, England,” the show’s cheery hat-tip to the 1960s “British Invasion” of pop stars, brought back a flood of memories for anyone who was there.
In the key role of Sheila, the attractive girl who’s passed to and fro between pals Berger and Claude, Caren Lyn Tackett grasps, and rebels against, the essential paradox of hippie freedom—the boys still run the show when it comes to sex. She gets some of the niftiest solo work in the show, and her moving, standout performance of the classic “Good Morning Sunshine” on opening night, perfectly captured at once the wistfulness and the sadness of both music and lyrics.
Smaller key roles were effectively filled out by Kacie Sheik (Jeanie), Kaitlin Kiyan (Crissy), Darius Nichols (Hud), and Matt DeAngelis, whose portrayal of Woof seemed at times an uncanny—and very funny–re-imagination of Scooby-Doo’s best pal Shaggy.
In the show’s best walk-on bit of humor, Josh Lamon had the audience in stitches as an over-the-top “Margaret Mead.”
Ensemble vocals were generally good. But the once somewhat controversial pair of race-based trios, “Black Boys” and “White Boys” was absolutely hilarious as female tribe members extolled the alleged—and clichéd—virtues of each. A standout in the latter of these songs was Phyre Hawkins, whose brassy, sassy Dionne might have reminded some of Janis Joplin at the peak of her brief career.
As for the production itself, Scott Pask’s spare scenic design, placing the band on tiers in the back of the stage, highlighted by a massive, tie-dyed fabric backdrop, suggested the era rather than depicting it literally. That was left to the excellent costume designs of Michael McDonald who perfectly recreates that distinctive 1960s hippie garb right down to the last scruffy headband and granny dress.
Given the spare stage accoutrements, much depended on the atmospheric lighting design of Kevin Adams. While not always exceptional, Adams’ directions are subtle in this production, cloaking areas of the stage at times to allow seamless entrances and exits and reaching peak effectiveness during the war pantomime that leads to the show’s finale.
The band, under the musical direction of David Truskinoff, performed ably and well, but the ensemble was so far back on the stage that their involvement at times seemed to lack the sort of intimacy that one might expect in a communal production like this one. Nonetheless, they did the job, and were particularly effective in those “Chicago” –like moments when the brass crunched in to punch out the beat.
Problems? Of course. What are critics for?
Transplanted to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage, Hair retains much of its original vitality. Yet it seems, at times, a bit lost in that large space, even though the frequent cast invasions of the audience’s space shrink things down a bit. One wonders: Might the show have been more comfortable, perhaps a bit more intimate, in the somewhat smaller Eisenhower? Might the band gained a more immediate connection to the ensemble players and singers?
Another problem in this production is the audio. Hair is a show that’s almost constantly sung. And that’s the way the plot, such as it is, advances, via song or recitatif. Which means that you absolutely need to hear the clever and quite-meaningful lyrics of the songs.
But in this production you generally can’t comprehend many of the lyrics unless you’ve already memorized most of the songs. It’s a problem I frequently encounter in rock productions and usually has to do with the audio design and mixing, in this case attributed to Acme Sound Partners. I used to think that it was just me. But during halftime at Hair, I overheard many patrons, particularly those seated in the bleachers, who loved the production but complained they could scarcely make out a word of the lyrics.
Maybe something like projected surtitles—long a fixture of opera in this country—could solve the problem. And perhaps a bit more attention to the fine art of diction by the singers.
All this said, this touring company of Hair has generally nailed down all the moving parts of the show. My complaints aside, most of the opening night audience loved it, with many eagerly crowding onstage to dance with the cast during the show’s extended finale.
Hair is both a page of living history for the younger crowd and for those who still remember being there. Some people still look upon the 1960s as the best years of their lives. Others wish they’d never happened. But Hair will take you back as no other show will, and you can decide that for yourself.
Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni . Music by Galt MacDermot
Directed by Diane Paulus
Music Direction by David Truskinoff
This national touring company is presented by the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Terry Ponick