You’ll be happy to hear that the kids are all right. Quite a bit more than all right. Having moved indoors to Broadway from the Delacorte Theater in Central Park — where last summer they lighted up the night skies, howled at the moon and had ticket seekers lining up at dawn — the young cast members of Diane Paulus’s thrilling revival of “Hair” show no signs of becoming domesticated.
On the contrary, they’re tearing down the house in the production that opened on Tuesday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. And any theatergoer with a pulse will find it hard to resist their invitation to join the demolition crew. This emotionally rich revival of “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” from 1967 delivers what Broadway otherwise hasn’t felt this season: the intense, unadulterated joy and anguish of that bi-polar state called youth.
Yes, I know there was a musical called “13,” about being exactly that age, that opened last fall, and that a lyrical revival of “West Side Story” is now playing to packed houses only a few blocks away. But what distinguishes “Hair” from other recent shows about being young is the illusion it sustains of rawness and immediacy, an un-self-conscious sense of the most self-conscious chapter in a person’s life.
Notice I did say “illusion.” Ms. Paulus and her creative team have worked hard at their seamless spontaneity. Karole Armitage’s happy hippie choreography, with its group gropes and mass writhing, looks as if it’s being invented on the spot. But there’s intelligent form within the seeming formlessness. And the whole production has been shaped in ways that find symmetry — and complexity — in a show that people tend to remember as a feel-good free-for-all.
“Hair” has a history of defying expectations. Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s portrait of living low and staying high in the East Village was, by all accounts, a mess up to the day it opened for previews at the Public Theater in 1967, with a last-minute switch of directors and several wholesale restagings. It was not an obvious candidate for the Broadway transfer it made the following year (with a new director, Tom O’Horgan, and a streamlined book). But of course it ran and ran, for 1,750 performances, and became the last original Broadway musical to introduce more than a couple of Top 40 hits.
Its latest resurrection, however, may be the most surprising of all. “The show is the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday,” wrote Clive Barnes in The New York Times when “Hair” opened in 1968. “Authentic voices of today” tend to grow cracked and quaint with age. A 1977 revival, which ran for 43 performances, suggested that “Hair” was strictly a show for its time, not for the ages.
That there’s nothing of the museum — or, worse, of the vintage jukebox — about Ms. Paulus’s production isn’t because she’s reinterpreted or even reframed it. She does what Bartlett Sher did for “South Pacific” last year, finding depths of character and feeling in what most people dismissed as dried corn. It’s not so much what Ms. Paulus brings to “Hair”; it’s what she brings out of it, vital elements that were always waiting to be rediscovered.
Most important, she clearly knew early that “Hair” isn’t just a celebration of the counterculture it depicts. The young folks here who sleep, trip and protest together may spout the philosophy of “peace, love, freedom, happiness.” But, hey, they’re all mostly in the waning days of their adolescence, a time when moods swing wide and adulthood looms as a suffocating shadow.
The kids of “Hair” are cuddly, sweet, madcap and ecstatic. They’re also angry, hostile, confused and scared as hell — and not just of the Vietnam War, which threatens to devour the male members of their tribe. They’re frightened of how the future is going to change them and of not knowing what comes next. Acting out the lives of the adults they disdain (a charade at which Andrew Kober, Theo Stockman and Megan Lawrence are particularly expert) becomes a cathartic ritual.
Ms. Paulus vividly establishes the show’s essential dichotomy in the first number, when she brings two performers to center stage. On the one hand, there’s Dionne (Sasha Allen), who leads the anthemic “Age of Aquarius” with soaring spirits and unimpeachable authority; on the other, standing to Dionne’s right, there’s Crissy (Allison Case), with a scrunched-up face and contorted posture that read like a plea for help, shelter and attention.
They all want attention, of course. Who doesn’t at that age? At least except when you’re longing to be invisible, like Claude (Gavin Creel), a young man who’s about to be drafted, who leads the show’s most stirring songs of affirmation (“I Got Life”) and helplessness (“Where Do I Go”).
Though a less flashy and show-offy presence than his best friend, Berger (Will Swenson), Claude is the divided soul of “Hair.” At the Delacorte, Jonathan Groff, with his outsider’s wistfulness, seemed such a natural in the part that I was sure that the Broadway “Hair” would suffer from his absence. But the pure-voiced Mr. Creel, late of “Mary Poppins,” scruffs up real nice. That he seems more a part of the gang than Mr. Groff did somehow makes this Claude come across as more of a bellwether of the group, the one who’s most in touch with the ambivalence they’re all feeling.
Mr. Creel does not dominate the show; nor does the terrific Mr. Swenson, who finds an edge of cruelty and desperation in the grandstanding Berger; nor does Caissie Levy (an excellent new addition to the cast) as the earnest politico Sheila, the woman both men sort of love.
Every single ensemble member emerges as an individual, each with specific issues and knotty histories that no drug or slogan can resolve. (Even their nudity, and how they flaunt it, in the first-act finale, further defines them.)
After the show I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to Bryce Ryness’s sexually inchoate Woof; Ms. Case’s hopeful, fretful Crissy; Darius Nichols’s defiant, suspicious Hud; Kacie Sheik’s pregnant, cheerily adrift Jeanie; or Ms. Allen’s taunting, sensually assured Dionne. I could go on through the entire cast list.
Mr. MacDermot’s music, which always had more pop than acid, holds up beautifully, given infectious life by the onstage band and the flavorfully blended voices of the cast. Scott Pask’s exposed-wall set is the perfect playground for a world in which imagination (aided by chemical substances) provides the décor.
But of course no stage can contain the hormone-stoked exuberance of those who inhabit it, whether they’re yipping, unzipping or tripping, both merrily and scarily. Know that you may find yourself in intimate contact with various dancing, cajoling tribe members. They may give you daisies or leaflets. They may even ask you to embrace them. Not that you haven’t already.
On Broadway, the spring season has brought imperfect productions of two transcendent musicals, West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. Now, to redress the balance, there's a transcendent production of an imperfect musical.
Hair is duly beloved for its scrumptious rock-candy score and for vividly capturing an indelible and pivotal moment in our history and culture. But like its very young, Vietnam-era characters, the story has more energy than focus. In the wrong hands, it can easily become a quaint, cloying mess.
The new Public Theater revival ( * * * * out of four), which opened Tuesday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, not only avoids potential obstacles but finds a resonance in Hair beyond any parallels between the turbulent '60s and our own troubled times. What director Diane Paulus and her flawless cast have achieved is a testament to the indomitability and transience of youth, with all the blissful exuberance and aching poignance that entails.
The Public introduced this Hair off-Broadway last summer, staging it outdoors as part of its Shakespeare in the Park festival. Inside the Hirshfeld, Paulus and crew have kicked down the fourth wall and gleefully stomped all over it. The hippies populating this "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" dance and frolic in the aisles, inviting audience members to join them. Flowers are distributed, hugs offered. At a recent preview, one tribe member escorted a woman who had wandered in late after intermission back to her seat.
As a result, the show feels even more immediate and, well, communal than it did in the open air. There's no escaping these wild children and their unbridled lust for life, and no wanting to. Similarly, after the central character, Claude, receives his draft notice and is forced to confront a more bitter reality, we, too, are moved and torn. Suffice to say that if you've ever doubted the elegiac weight of Let the Sun Shine In, you'll be convinced here.
All the performers are at once technically supple singers and superb musical actors. The empty showmanship so prevalent in pop and musical theater would seem particularly out of place among Hair's earthy young men and women. When Gavin Creel's Claude sings Where Do I Go, or Caissie Levy, as the feisty but vulnerable Sheila, delivers a stunning Easy to Be Hard, we believe every word and feel every note.
This graceful earnestness is complemented by an equally authentic sense of humor and mischief. Will Swenson's feral Berger and Darius Nichols' sly, bracing Hud are delightful, and Andrew Kober has a priceless turn as a "visitor from another generation." Allison Case, Bryce Ryness and Kacie Sheik also provide funny and touching moments.
But this Hair is more than the sum of its groovy, glorious parts. Anyone who can is advised to tune in and turn on, and be prepared for an exhilarating ride.
With its alfresco setting and the penetrating echoes of its countercultural themes during an election year in which political disenchantment became endemic, the Public Theater's revival of "Hair" last summer in Central Park was a unique experience. So shifting it indoors could only dim the thrill, right? Wrong. The enhanced production now at the Al Hirschfeld is sharper, fuller and even more emotionally charged. Director Diane Paulus and her prodigiously talented cast connect with the material in ways that cut right to the 1967 rock musical's heart, generating tremendous energy that radiates to the rafters.
Much credit goes to the design team's skill at reconceptualizing the show for a proscenium theater. Suggesting a public space commandeered by hippie occupation, Scott Pask has littered the stage with rugs and splashed sunbeams and stars across a back wall punctuated by windows, doors, walkways and a tangle of stairs. This allows the hyperactive cast to race around at all levels, including aisles, boxes, mezzanine and even street exits.
In a show about community, it's an astute move to erase the barriers between performers and public, inviting the audience to share directly in both the hedonistic conjuring of peace-love-freedom-happiness and the sorrowful disillusionment that follows. What could have been mere nostalgia instead becomes a full-immersion happening.
The 12-piece band plays composer Galt MacDermot's period-authentic orchestrations atop a 1950s truck, and a pristine sound mix makes the show as kick-ass loud as it should be, while allowing every one of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's trippy lyrics and inventory-style poetic riffs to be heard. The most dazzling new contribution is visual magician Kevin Adams' lighting, alive with throbbing colors that truly pop and psychotropic effects that make the walls, floor and ceiling swim.
Yet despite all the creative and financial resources applied, there's no trace of deadening slickness here. The show still has the loose vitality of urgent, spontaneous expression, thanks to a vibrant ensemble that understands the guiding principle of deep-rooted group harmony while still asserting distinctive personalities.
The production's veterans have honed their characterizations into second skins: Will Swenson's Berger is a fiercely charismatic ringmaster, his cheeky audience interaction banishing spectator detachment from the start. Darius Nichols' Hud has a sexy strut and deadpan insouciance; Bryce Ryness' Mick Jagger-loving Woof drolly balances swagger and sweetness; Allison Case's Crissy beams raw vulnerability and idealism; and Kacie Sheik's pregnant Jeanie nails the flaky comedy and the ache of unrequited love.
Among newcomers, Gavin Creel's assured singing and unforced charm are a fine fit for the doomed Claude, and he establishes a warm bond with Swenson's Berger, the pair of them firing up the rousing title song. Creel brings rebellious self-affirmation to "I Got Life," darkens the tone via the confused questioning of "Where Do I Go," and amplifies the bitter poignancy of "The Flesh Failures."
Also a strong addition, Caissie Levy's ballsy Sheila is persuasive as the group's galvanizing political force, pumping wounded anger into "Easy to Be Hard." The one disappointment is Sasha Allen as Dionne, a marginal character given major vocal duties, notably on "Aquarius," "White Boys" and "Walking in Space"; she sounds too contemporary, layering on intrusive "American Idol"-style growls and warbles.
Draped in Michael McDonald's flower-power finery, each Tribe member gets multiple opportunities to shine, and while one or two of them stretch age-appropriateness a bit, the overall impact is of a group bursting with youth. They elevate the audience to such a collective high during the first act's nonstop exuberance that the apprehensive turn becomes all the more wrenching.
Paulus rises to the challenge of shaping Ragni and Rado's freeform vaudeville collage into a narrative, particularly in the heartbreaking crescendo of the final scenes. And Claude's extended hallucination suite, which often drags, here walks a mesmerizing line between humor and horror.
The characters' unity of spirit is mirrored in their movements as choreographer Karole Armitage shepherds the group into a writhing mass, a sinuous human chain or splintering comets. Her brilliant work has the appearance not of practiced steps but of uncontainable physical self-expression.
Surprisingly, considering how firmly they were rooted in the zeitgeist of the era, the songs remain trenchant. The score's vigorousness and variety are remarkable, threading together delicate melodies with driving, combustible ones, double-edged comic sketches with celebratory anthems, dirty funk, hippie-dippie lovefests and satirical ditties.
Fears that the Vietnam-era show's message, which struck such a chord in the waning days of the Bush administration, would have less impact in the Obama age now seem unfounded. While it's unmistakably a period piece, "Hair" plays almost like a direct response to the fallout from a culture of shortsighted greed.
Following the exit of "Rent" and "Spring Awakening" from Broadway, a vacancy exists for a rock musical that communicates viscerally with its audience. This revival does that and then some; it's likely to invigorate kids coming fresh to the material as much as baby boomers disinterring memories of their youth. If this explosive production doesn't stir something in you, it may be time to check your pulse.