Hair Offers a Little Summer Love-In at the St. James Theater

Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt in Hair.

Gliddy glup gloopy nibby nabby noopy la la la lo lo.

Hair is back on Broadway, in all its wonderfully goofy, psychedelic and energetic, sweet and sad, moving, joyous ridiculousness. And it’s impossible not to smile, tap your feet and sing along, perhaps with a daisy perched jauntily behind your ear.

Good morning, starshine. The earth says hello.

This incarnation of the 1967 hippie-dippy rock musical about peace, love, sex, drugs and the Vietnam War, directed by Diane Paulus, who somewhat reworked the script, first appeared in September 2007, for a one-weekend 40th anniversary concert production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The once-revolutionary show—Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s affectionate portrait of Summer of Love life in New York City, of flower power and good vibes, of political engagement and political impotence, with poppy, radio-ready songs by Galt MacDermot—was the premiere production at the Public Theater’s Lafayette Street complex before it moved to Broadway in 1968; it was only natural for the Public to celebrate the anniversary at its summer home.

It was a gorgeous, unforgettable experience, a perfect marriage of material and venue, and the next summer it returned for a longer run as part of the Public’s annual Shakespeare in the Park residency, with a more fully realized staging by Ms. Paulus. In the spring of 2009, Ms. Paulus and the Public brought that production, too, to Broadway, where it played for 15 months at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. After a less successful run in London’s West End, Ms. Paulus’s production began a U.S. tour last fall. It is that touring production that is squatting in a scheduled-to-be-vacant-for-the-summer St. James Theatre, where it opened last week in a limited engagement through early September.

Whether this return to New York will turn out to be a good business decision remains to be seen—that sizable chunks of the orchestra sat empty at the performance The Observer attended, on the night after opening night, does not bode well. But only a square worries about money over art, and artistically Ms. Paulus’s warm-hearted and exuberant vision is still mostly intact, and mostly enchanting. Her Hair continues to envelop its audience in its good time—both emotionally and physically, with members of the Hair tribe frequently descending into the audience to strut, dance and distribute flowers.

This is no stripped-down, diminished traveling production. While the big names from the Central Park and Broadway productions are no longer in the lead roles—no Jonathan Groff, no Gavin Creel, no Will Swenson, no Karen Olivo—most of the performers have been with Hair through several iterations, if not in the same roles. (Kacie Sheik, who has played Jeanie, happily pregnant by one man and unrequitedly in love with another, since the first Central Park production, has remained lovely and winsome.) It’s an excellent cast of young, big-voiced actors, who writhe ably and grinningly through Karole Armitage’s amusingly, trippily mock-sexy choreography. (Steel Burkhardt, who’s also been with Hair since its first park production, has been promoted here to the ringleader role of Berger but was replaced by his very entirely respectable understudy, Nicholas Belton, at the performance I saw.) I counted 11 musicians in the band, down from the 12 listed in my Playbills from the Hirschfeld and Central Park. The one concession to traveling-production standards: the performers are boomingly, distractingly overmiked (and, worse, unevenly miked), the better, perhaps, to drill the lyrics into unfamiliar listeners but the worse to enjoy them.

But the real problem with this production of Hair, if there is one (that can’t be solved by turning the volume down), is unavoidable: The further it moves from the moment at which it was created—now four year ago—the less immediate and less fresh it feels.

This was first apparent in the spring of 2009, when Hair opened on Broadway. At Central Park in 2007, sitting in the same park in which at least part of the play is set, the whole thing just felt right, organic to the time and place. And the Hair tribe’s inchoate anger—the kids’ frustration at being trapped in a system they didn’t like, and wanted to change, but couldn’t control­—resonated deeply in a liberal, Democratic city suffering through the last years of a thoroughly discredited Bush administration.

Two years later, in the plushly upholstered confines of the Hirschfeld, things were different. We were no longer outdoors, among the flower children’s flowers and trees, and, more important, Bush was no longer president. The production was objectively a better one—a more fully realized staging, more fully developed choreography, Mr. Creel giving the central character of Claude a swaggering charisma the preternaturally clean-scrubbed Mr. Groff had lacked—but it seemed less relevant and less urgent. Its datedness was more apparent; it was closer to a museum piece—an excellent museum piece, but a museum piece all the same.

Now we are seeing a tourist-targeting restaging of that museum piece, a simulacrum of a simulacrum of a simulacrum. It is still a good time, but you are now very aware of the efforts to make it one. It has lost its freshness.

But, then, these are overly deep thoughts for steamy summer nights. (Isn’t Serious Theater supposed to shut down for the summer?) And Hair has never been only about free love and good fun. It is ultimately tragic, as the group fails to protect its beloved Claude from the inevitable fate of any young man who has received his draft notice: he ends the play a soldier, with his hair cut short.

The fun, that is to say, must come to an end. But why not milk it as long as you can? Let the sun shine, let the sun shine in.


Hair Offers a Little Summer Love-In at the St. James Theater