THEATER REVIEW

The wonderfully unruly 'Hair' is still a blowout 42 years after its Broadway debut

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

"Hair," the musical that turned the counterculture into a hippie-dippy chorus line, has planted itself at the Kennedy Center for a spell -- and what an exhilarating frug down memory lane it proves to be. Bolstered by a frisky young cast, the show uncorks the effervescent innocence of an age when young people dared to imagine that war and hatred could be drummed out of the world by the irresistible rhythms of love.

We know how effective that plan was. Still, there's a natural high in returning to the psychedelic cradle where flower power was born. Some of the songs by Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado do retain their shock value: "Sodomy," for example, is a recitation of terminology for X-rated acts; another number, sung by a black actor, runs through a list of African American epithets and stereotypes. And the melodic celebrations of the mystical properties of pot and LSD predate an era far more pragmatic about the scourge of drugs.

By and large, however, time seems to have mellowed the outrageousness of "Hair," so much so that in 2010 -- 42 years after its debut on Broadway! -- even the sequence in which the entire cast disrobes seems more redolent of sweetness than scandal.

This Tony-winning revival, directed with verve and intelligence by Diane Paulus, was first presented as a free event in Central Park by the Joseph Papp Public Theater and then moved to Broadway in early 2009. It is launching its national tour with the month-long engagement in the center's Opera House. In some ways, it's the best version yet. The scenes of social satire -- featuring the dandy Josh Lamon and Allison Guinn as perfect squares from the over-30 generation -- exude a mocking sharpness to which they've only previously aspired.

And the other actors fully develop the symbiotic connectivity befitting America's self-styled Tribal Love-Rock Musical. Paris Remillard's Claude, whose receipt of a draft card for induction into the military sparks the show's only linear plot, makes for an endearingly conflicted hero, and Steel Burkhardt gives "Hair's" raucously aimless Berger the requisite subversive dynamism. Kacie Sheik's adorable Jeanie -- the flaky naif who's big with somebody's child -- is a comedic standout, while Phyre Hawkins powers pleasingly through some of the evening's biggest numbers, the classic "Aquarius" among them.

The technical challenge of making the lyrics of the boisterous score completely discernible remains to be conquered. "Hair" needs to be big and loud, but an audience wants to hear the words. Many of them in the chorus numbers are swallowed up by the 10-member rock and brass band, and so in songs such as the buoyantly cross-racial "White Boys" and "Black Boys" and the hauntingly antiwar "Three-Five-Zero-Zero," the impact is frustratingly muted.

Some may perceive attempts to equate the anti-Vietnam War sentiments of "Hair" to events in the present day. But while it is true that the United States is again enmeshed in controversial wars in Asia, the circumstances prompting the show's rebellious acts feel as if they bear only tangential resemblance to modern America. (This production seems almost at times to soft-pedal the work's hostility toward American institutions; a vigorously up-tempo version of the song slamming flag-worship, "Don't Put It Down," obscures the number's acidic tone.)

The pivotal difference is that in "Hair's" time, many young men who wound up as soldiers in a widely unpopular conflict did not go as volunteers. Potential conscripts like the hippies of "Hair" formed a coalition of the unwilling, and it was often the case that resistance to the war came from a highly personal sense of threat.

This urgent link plays out successfully in the final numbers of Act 1, as the members of the cast move up the aisles and gather onstage, chanting the exquisite notes of "Hare Krishna." One by one, the men pull out selective service notices and drop them into a flaming barrel: this tribe's fire ritual. The scene culminates in Remillard's touching rendition of the soft-rock "Where Do I Go," an articulation of Claude's ambivalence toward overt defiance of the establishment. Unlike Berger, he's not quite prepared to turn on, tune in and drop out.

While the musical dips back into Claude's story from time to time, it unfolds more often like a rock vaudeville, segueing from protest song ("Air") to folk ballad ("Easy to Be Hard") to self-defining anthem ("I Got Life"). Designer Michael McDonald dresses the cast in vests with fringe, bell-bottom jeans and headbands, emblematic of a time when it was normal to walk around in costume. Karole Armitage's vibrant, do-your-own-thing choreography steers gratifyingly clear of '60s cliches. And Scott Pask's set and Kevin Adams's lighting aid in the impression the evening creates of an open-air happening.

So don't be shy; come join this most excellent be-in. "I got freedom, brother!" Claude sings as his parents look on, mortified. Time and again, "Hair" reminds you of the rush that comes with exuberant declarations of independence.

Hair

music by Galt MacDermot, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography, Karole Armitage; set, Scott Pask; costumes, Michael McDonald; lighting, Kevin Adams; music director, David Truskinoff; sound, Acme Sound Partners. With Darius Nichols, Matt DeAngelis, Caren Lyn Tackett. About 2½ hours. Through Nov. 21 at Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW. Visit http://www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.


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