A few days ago, the good folks at the Public Theater announced that the national tour of Hair, currently wending its way across the country, would settle onto Broadway this summer for a ten-week limited engagement at the St. James Theatre, soon to be vacated by American Idiot.
It's a welcome bit of news, even more so since I had a chance to catch the Hair tour when it was in Boston, and I can happily report that the production is holding up quite well.
This is my third time seeing Diane Paulus's production of Hair, and each time I see it, I enjoy it even more. The show emits a wondrous morass of front-loaded energy, a warm and atmospheric microcosm that welcomes audiences into the show's affirming world. I've always found the piece itself somewhat problematic, but somehow Paulus smooths over the flaws, even making some of them into assets.
For instance, the show's first act is a bit plodding, featuring a succession of rapid-fire character introductions, and it gets a bit mechanical. But the sheer energy of the cast and the melodious nature of the score more than carry the day, turning what could potentially be repetitive into a welcome rush of warmth and exuberance. The show really gains momentum in act 2, in particular during Claude's hallucination, which builds in hypnotic power, and careens the audience head-long into the show's simple but shattering climax.
For some reason, I came into this particular version of Hair show with a chip on my shoulder. I genuinely enjoyed both the Central Park (read my review) and Broadway (read my review) versions, but the musical-theater historian in me wanted to pick the show apart and find the flaws. Despite my conscious efforts to remain analytical and objective, I found that I was getting caught up in the celebration, almost despite myself.
The flaws are nonetheless manifold. My main problem with Hair remains Claude's justification for eventually deciding to go to war. The show does a great job of showing that Claude is conflicted: he wants to please his parents, but he is also haunted by visions of what the war will actually be like. But we never really see him make the decision to go, nor do we fully understand his reasoning. Yeah, there's nothing wrong with subtlety, but at least in this regard the show crosses the line into inscrutability.
Also, some of the song setups are a bit forced, particularly the one for "Easy to Be Hard." Sheila buys Berger a yellow polyester shirt, which Berger proceeds to tear in half. So Sheila sings "How can people people so heartless." Well, boo-frickin'-hoo. Couldn't we come up with something a bit more compelling, guys? For me, the lame setup robs the powerful song of its full impact. And the song "Frank Mills," while charming, is rather pointless, and seems included here only to cover the costume change before the "Be-In."
And yet the show works, and smashingly so, carried by the luminous charm of Galt MacDermot's score and the sheer force of the talented performers currently appearing in the tour. Perhaps most remarkable is Steel Burkhardt as Berger, who is every bit as dynamic and engaging as Will Swenson was, perhaps even more so. On the debit side, we have Paris Remillard as Claude who can certainly sing the role, but doesn't really have the stage presence or emotional range of either Jonathan Groff or Gavin Creel, whom I saw as Claude in the Delacorte on Broadway productions, respectively.
Depending on my schedule and what else is playing this summer, I way have to take Hair in one final time. I keep finding new things to love in the show, despite my reservations and conscious efforts to deconstruct it. I do find it interesting to note that the show's creative staff, including MacDermot and librettists/lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado, weren't able to replicate their success with Hair, despite numerous attempts. (Dude? Via Galactica? The Human Comedy? Oh, please, my nerves...)
And I'm starting to get the same what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? feeling about Diane Paulus, who's now in the process of shaking the venerable A.R.T. to its very core. Her last two musical-theater efforts, The Blue Flower and Prometheus Bound, left me decidedly nonplussed, but based on the magic that is her production of Hair, I'm willing to patiently await the day when she gets her groove back.