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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Hair in Central Park

For many of us who were teenagers in the late 60s/early 70s (or for those younger fans who came to love the album later), the songs from the Broadway musical Hair have an almost incantatory power. It may in fact be hard for us to separate our nostalgic inner teen from an objective critical perspective about Hair.

This is by way of preface to my saying: The Public Theater's new production of Hair in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is the most exhilarating evening of entertainment I’ve experienced in a long time. If you’ve never spent time singing along to the 1968 original cast album, you may want to take my opinion with a grain of salt. But I know there are many thousands, if not millions, of others who are excited at the very mention of this new production. And to you I say: Don’t hesitate – prepare right now to stand in line for your free tickets, either in person in the park, or in the “virtual line” at the Public Theater’s web site. This engagement is playing six nights a week through the end of August.

Hair has never been perfect – its book is often thin, sketchy, even crude, and the song lyrics vary from the very charming to the impenetrable to the downright silly. (Did even the authors know what “supreme visions of lonely tunes” means?) But the score by Galt MacDermot is often spectacularly successful, and when it is as well performed as it is here, it can be completely transporting. Some are likely to write it off as a quaint or ridiculous period piece in any case. But the songs are both of their time and timeless.

The show is set in the East Village of 1968, among a “tribe” of flower children/draft resisters/dropouts who spend a couple of hours sharing with us their delight in polymorphous sex, marijuana, and communal good vibes, while playfully and sometimes fiercely mocking the racism, war-mongering, and general up-tightness they see around them. It eventually becomes the tragic story of Claude Hooper Bukowski, one of the onstage tribe, who is ambivalent about burning his draft card, with devastating consequences. (The parallels of the Vietnam era to our contemporary unpopular war in Iraq are readily apparent, and fortunately the cast and crew of this Hair don’t feel the need to hit you over the head with them.)

The first act is more lighthearted and often very funny, although it opens and closes with two now-famous numbers that foreshadow the more moving second act. You can feel the electricity in the audience as the lights go down and the superlative onstage band begins to play “Aquarius,” and there is an eruption of excitement as Patina Renea Miller breaks into the familiar, soaring opening lines sung originally by Melba Moore: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars/Then peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars.” An hour later, the act closes with Claude (Spring Awakening’s Jonathan Groff) singing the wistful ballad “Where Do I Go?” while behind him the rest of the cast disrobes in a scene that scandalized Broadway 40 years ago.

In between the Act One opening and closing numbers are more than 15 other songs (Hair has more than 30 numbers in all), some only a minute or two long, nearly all delightful. In 1968, Hair didn’t sound like other Broadway scores, but it also didn’t much resemble the pop and rock being played on the radio at the time. It had its own eclectic pop sound, and this may have prevented it from becoming a moldy period piece (even if some of the words have aged less gracefully).

First come a group of numbers that introduce the main characters. The hedonist clown and swaggering male egoist Berger (Will Swenson in the role originated by co-author Gerome Ragni) sings “Donna,” about the “sixteen-year-old virgin…tattooed woman” he’s been pursuing. Woof (Bryce Ryness), who “has a thing for” both Mick Jagger and Berger, sings about some of his other interests in “Sodomy,” which can still provoke astonished laughter in audiences hearing it for the first time. Hud (Darius Nichols), an African-American, fights racism with sarcasm in “Colored Spade.” Finally, Claude escapes his dreary home life in Queens by pretending to be an aspiring “genius genius” filmmaker from “Manchester, England.”

In a reflection of the hippies’ (and the authors’) sexism, the female characters aren’t supplied with similar introductory songs. They do, however, get lead or solo vocals in three of the biggest applause-getters in the show: “Aquarius”; the plaintive ballad “Easy to be Hard” (sung by Caren Lyn Manuel as Sheila, addressed to the jauntily obnoxious Berger); and that blank-verse masterpiece of hilarity that can also make you cry, “Frank Mills” (sung by Allison Case). And the “girls” get the biggest smash comedy ensemble number as well, in “Black Boys/White Boys,” a riotous highlight of Act Two.

The “characters” are really just sketches, and there’s not a lot for the actors to do with the dialogue. Most are content to be charming or funny. Claude is the one role that requires some approximation of an extended characterization. (James Rado, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Ragni, was the original Claude on Broadway.) It’s understandable that the producers of this new Hair would think of Jonathan Groff, fresh off his success as another rebellious youth in Spring Awakening. But just as in that show, Groff’s singing far outshines his ability with dialogue. He succeeds quite well with two of his big numbers, “I Got Life” and “Where Do I Go?” But his wig gives him an unfortunate resemblance to 70s teen idols like David Cassidy or Leif Garrett – not the best models for Claude, who is supposed to be Everyman, earnest and a bit goofy, not a callow pretty-boy or a hippie Zac Efron. (Groff is with the show for two more weeks; then Christopher J. Hanke plays Claude August 17-31.)

And yet Claude’s story still packs an emotional wallop because of the power of the big ensemble numbers that are the best parts of the show. The singing and the choreography in these numbers are just wonderful. They range from raucously funny and satirical (such as in the title song, “Ain’t Got No,” and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”) to spacey-psychedelic (“Walking in Space” and “Be-In/Hare Krishna”). And they reach a spectacular climax in the final number, “The Flesh Failures,” which segues into “Let the Sunshine In.” I had only heard this song on the cast album, and had never seen it staged, so I wasn’t prepared for the coup de theatre with which it (and the main part of the show) end. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that it leaves the audience stunned, breathless, overwhelmed. (You may think of “Let the Sunshine In” as a celebratory anthem; its original intent was to pierce your heart.) To break the tension, the curtain call turns into a big dance party, with audience members joining the cast onstage. Out under the stars in Central Park, it’s a bracing ending to a fantastic night.

Highest kudos to director Diane Paulus, music supervisor Rob Fisher, music director/conductor Nada DiGiallonardo, and choreographer Karole Armitage. They and the very talented young cast perform wonders. It’s possible this production will return in an indoor version, but see it in Central Park while you can – this Hair is an experience that won’t be easy to duplicate elsewhere.

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