Theater review: ‘Hair’ at the Pantages Theatre
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Baby boomers just started turning 65, which means more and more ex-hippies will be added to the rolls of Social Security. But if you think time has rendered “Hair” old-fashioned, you need to check out Diane Paulus’ exhilarating revival, which opened Thursday at the Pantages Theatre.
This Tony-winning production understands the musical’s strength, which has less to do with a well-wrought story and snappy show tunes than with the Dionysian expression of a community struggling to liberate itself from oppressive convention. The experience comes as close to “the American Tribal Love-Rock-Musical” subtitle as one can get without worrying about a raid from the LAPD.
From its off-Broadway inception in 1967, “Hair” has wrestled against charges of kitsch. A few long-haired types detected something ersatz in the countercultural approximations of Galt MacDermot’s music and Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book and lyrics. When Joseph Papp moved the show to Broadway the following year, in a new streamlined production directed by Tom O’Horgan, the authenticity factor reportedly went up, but the show’s mainstream success left some feeling like their movement had been co-opted.
Paulus concentrates on what’s most genuine about “Hair,” the raucous, confused, desperate, hopeful plight of young people trying to forge a path to the future that doesn’t destroy their dreams or deny their bodies. The sex scenes no longer startle, the nudity rushes by without a blush, the sacrilege prompts smiles, and the quasi-religious attitude toward drugs seems almost quaint. What continues to be radical, however, is the solidarity of sensibility that unites men and women of different backgrounds to question an authority that sets its own agenda above everything else. When Phyre Hawkins’ Dionne struts out in flower-child garb singing “Aquarius,” the musical’s rousing opening number and epoch-defining theme song, only the most stubborn could resist the sultry call to change. The show continues its star-shine seduction in the form of a revue, with actors dancing in the aisles and occasionally jumping into the laps of audience members, a few of whom looked like they’ve been waiting a long time for just this kind of impromptu love-in.
This national tour production has fielded a strong ensemble, and the joyful camaraderie among cast members is infectious. The high spirits never flag (thanks in large part to Karole Armitage’s breathless choreography) and similar to “The Donkey Show,” Paulus’ disco adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” there’s a feeling that any minute a full-blown rave might break out.
Steel Burkhardt, who plays Berger, the tribe’s free-spirited Peter Pan, develops a chummy rapport with the audience the moment he drops his pants and shows off his fringe loincloth. His performance captures the sweet, reckless, immature idealism of a generation that wants its pleasure without having to pay.
As Claude, the young man from Flushing, Queens, who pretends he hails from Manchester, England, Paris Remillard communicates the conflicted longing of someone who wishes he could relinquish his banal past. Yet unlike his fellow hippies, he balks when it comes time to burn his draft card. Responsibility may be a trap, but the alternative seems just as much a dead end to a kid whose head is a battleground between his parents’ carping voices and the siren sounds of rock ‘n’ roll.
Paulus subtly corrects some of the troubling sexual politics of the show. Caren Lyn Tackett’s Sheila and Kacie Sheik’s Jeanie are more than pining love objects, and Matt DeAngelis’ Woof isn’t just an omnisexual fool for Mick Jagger but an affectionate presence.
The emotional resonance of this production is no doubt intensified by the context of our own wartime situation. The U.S. may no longer have a draft, but many young men and women confronting a job market with little breathing room for newcomers have no choice but to enlist. The show encourages us to hang out with its characters, to laugh at their rambunctious energy and to sympathize with their vulnerabilities. Tensions in the tribe break out, but the real terror is the sledgehammer of adult reality that’s waiting to descend.
The music had me floating on a cloud of euphoria (even though the amplification was often overpowering), but heartbreak was palpable throughout. This revival redeems “Hair” not in a superficial tie-dye fashion but in a manner that connects us to what inspired an era to reinvent itself.
‘Hair,’ Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 23. $25-$90. (800) 982-2787 or www.BroadwayLA.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.
Lawrence Stallings, Steel Burkhardt and Matt DeAngelis. Credit: Joan Marcus