As Keegan Theatre proves in its faithful revival, the musical “Hair” can work in a small space and galvanize audiences as if it were still 1968.
So did the Broadway tour that swung through the Kennedy Center in 2010. But “Hair” is a show that requires a goodly number of soloists and an ensemble that must appear at all times fully invested in their hippiedom, from passing a joint to protesting a war to briefly getting naked at a “be-in.”
The musical presents challenges for a small company, yet Keegan’s full-blooded production shivers the timbers of its intimate Church Street space. There are instances of vocal weakness, to be sure, but much terrific singing, too. The young cast and most of the leads deliver the heck out of Galt MacDermot’s tuneful semi-rock score, and prove that Gerome Ragni’s and James Rado’s lyrics haven’t lost their bite. Everyone is subtly miked, and few words go missing.
A minimalist approach by scenic designer Matthew Keenan keeps the stage clear for the performers. He has placed the eight-member orchestra, ably led by pianist-conductor Jake Null, at the back, and save for one or two bits of ratty furniture, it is the large cotton wall hangings in a South Asian “Tree of Life” design that create the atmosphere. Many a baby boomer in the audience will flash back to her or his dorm-room décor.
This spaciousness allows co-
directors Mark A. Rhea (the company’s founder and producing artistic director) and Susan Marie Rhea to have their big cast of 20-plus fully inhabit the space, which they start doing as the audience takes their seats — lolling about, sharing what looks like a joint, dancing stoned to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” The actors also engage with audience members, but fear not — no one gets pulled onstage.
The setting is Manhattan’s East Village, circa 1967. A group of college and/or high-school dropouts hang together communally and, in no particular order, reject the Vietnam War, racism and middle-class values, while also getting stoned and tripping on LSD. The show’s subtitle, “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical,” which Keegan’s version leaves off the playbill, implies all that quite pithily. By today’s standards, the show virtually ignores gender equality, though it does treat bisexuality and gayness with some respect.
From the moment Ines Nassara as Ronny lends her gorgeous alto to the opening anthem “Aquarius,” the show is off and running. Key characters soon emerge from among the scraggly youth.
The standouts are Josh Sticklin as Berger, the self-absorbed leader of the tribe, and Paul Scanlan as Berger’s pal Claude, who wishes he were a blue-collar Brit (in the song “Manchester”) and can’t decide whether to burn his draft card or just report for duty. These two are the show’s tentpoles, but they get great vocal and physical backup from Ian Anthony Coleman as Hud, who heartily blasts through African American stereotypes in “Colored Spade” and “Abie Baby.”
Dani Stoller does delicate work as Jeanie, who’s pregnant by some guy and hopelessly in love with Claude. She aces the disarming ditty “Air,” about pollution, while wearing a gas mask. Caroline Wolfson (Sheila) offers fine emotional truth as Berger’s oft-spurned lover, but she has pitch problems in “Easy to Be Hard” and “I Believe in Love.” Lyndsay Rini as Crissy, the waif who sings about her crush in “Frank Mills,” doesn’t trust the wistful tune to tell her story and overacts it.
Keegan has cultivated a knack for reviving Broadway musicals of a certain anti-bourgeois edge, such as “Rent,” “Spring Awakening,” “Cabaret,” “The Full Monty” and now “Hair.” It doesn’t exactly reinvent or re-imagine them, but it tries, often quite successfully, to reproduce them in an up-close way that’s hard to achieve on Broadway or at the Kennedy Center. It’s a niche, and Keegan fills it.
Jane Horwitz is a freelance writer.
book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea. Costume design, Chelsey Schuller; lighting, Allan Sean Weeks; sound, Tony Angelini; choreography, Rachel Leigh Dolan. With Danny Bertaux, Jamie Boyle, Darius Tyrus Epps, Paige Felix, Chad W. Fornwalt, Katie Furtado, Autumn Seavey Hicks, Jade Jones, Emily Levey, Eben K. Logan, Thony Mena, Christian Montgomery, Ava Silva, Kedren Spencer, Ryan Patrick Welsh, and Peter Finnegan. Tickets $37-$42. Two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission. Presented through April 27 by the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.