Must-See Theater: “Hair” Revival at the Academy of Music

An energetic cast makes this classic feel new again.

For years, the musical Hair has seemed liked a dated, time-bottle musical—filled with drugs, hippies, Vietnam, and a Godspell-ian, tribal cast. Opening the same year as 1776 and Promises, Promises, Hair was revolutionary. Yet after the closure of its initial Broadway run and after the show’s thematic controversies became less controversial, the musical (created by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot) proliferated among college theater departments and adventurous community theaters. Other than an underwhelming 1979 film, directed by Miloš Forman (Amadeus) and several not-as-successful revivals, Hair seemed relegated to musical theater history, remembered mostly for nudity and The 5th Dimension. But with Diane Paulus’ Tony Award-winning Broadway revival in 2009, a year filled with severe economic problems and news from two ongoing wars, the40-year-old show became once again relevant.

For those unfamiliar with the show, the musical follows a “tribe” of New York youth—informally lead by Berger (Steel Burkhardt), Claude (Marshal Kennedy Carolan), and Sheila (Sara King)—who rebel against their parents, the norms of conservative society, and the Vietnam War. When Claude is drafted he must decide whether to follow his draft-card burning friends or to serve. It is told not in traditional musical theater tradition (scene, song, scene, song). Instead, it is more a collective of songs underscoring the mood of the time.

The national tour, playing through Sunday, captures the same kinetic, infectious energy as the original Broadway cast. This tribe—made up of actors powerful in body and voice—is able to get the most timid audience member to clap along. (Be advised: Though there is no direct audience participation, those on the orchestra aisles will have interaction with the company.)

As Berger, Burkhardt gives the most energetic performance—serving as the musical’s opening narrator. His delivery of his opening lines as well as his ad-libbed interactions with the audience, specifically hugging and kissing some latecomers, quickly pulls you into the ’60s era. (Though his introduction of his mother—Burkhardt’s, not Berger’s—who was in the audience, was a bit distracting.) The other standout is Will Blum’s portrayal of Margaret Mead, a newlywed, older woman who encounters the tribe on her honeymoon. His rendition of “My Conviction” and his ad-libbed asides are perfection.

Carolan and King both give fine vocal performances (especially “Where Do I Go” and “Easy to Be Hard,” respectively); however, their acting is not as successful. Carolan remains too laid back, too soft-spoken. In scenes opposite Berger, his Claude seems wooden. King, in contrast, continually forces every moment: Her delivery and mannerisms are too overdone, too broad stroked. While many other cast members are able to emote ’60s mannerisms effortlessly, King sticks out. Yet the biggest disappointment was “Frank Mills.” It is a sweet, comic, and lovely song, yet Kiyan’s too-modern rendition strangles its melody and garbles its comedic moments.

Yes the show is filled with mature language, simulated drug use, sexual content, and nudity. (Though the non-sexual nudity occurs during a 20-second, dimly lit scene.) It is also filled with talented, energetic actors, incredible voices, surprising and organic direction and choreography from Diane Paulus and Karole Armitage, and some of the best rock music written in the last 50 years. (Including stunning, beautiful, and arresting musical finale: “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In.” It is breathtaking.) It is one of the best musical theater revivals in recent years.