Gavin Creel (L) and Will Swenson in Hair
You will be hard-pressed to find as much energy, poignancy and joy on Broadway right now than the current revival of Hair which opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. This production originated in Central Park last summer also under the auspices of the Public Theater.
The original production of Hair opened at the Public Theater on October 17, 1967 as the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and a cultural revolution. Who could imagine that this period piece could feel as timely today as it did in 1967. It hardly has the shocking impact on today's audience it did on the audience then. In watching the show you can see the kind of jarring impact the show must have had on audiences in 1967. Its in-your-face disavowing of what was considered right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable not to mention the nude scene at the end of act one must have made some audience members in 1967 apoplectic.
The sheer energy level of this cast is hard to comprehend. As I was leaving the theatre after a Saturday matinee I couldn't fathom them having to turn around and do another show that night. The cast stars Will Swenson as the tribe leader Berger who leads this cast with wild abandon in the role as kind of a master of ceremonies. He is everywhere, humping everything. (Be forewarned, this is a very erotic production. ) His performance is completely void of any kind of self-consciousness and is as relaxed and enjoyed as any performance I have seen this season.
At the performance I attended, Sasha Allen who usually plays Dionne was replaced by her understudy, Saycon Sengbloh. Being familiar with the short-shrift that understudies usually get with regard to rehearsal, particularly this soon after opening, Ms. Sengbloh was phenomenal. She opens the show with "Aquarius" and had you not been informed ahead of time you would never have known that you were seeing an understudy. As the rabble-rouser of the women of the tribe and Berger's main squeeze, Sheila, played with earnestness by Caissie Levy, is a stand-out. Her rendition of "Easy to be Hard," singing about the cruelty she feels at the hands of Berger, will break your heart. As the conflicted Claude (as if all the characters aren't conflicted), Gavin Creel is gut wrenching to watch as he pines after two people he can't have (Berger and Sheila) and tries to stay true to himself and make his parents proud by succumbing to being drafted by the US Army. As each cast member's character feels so completely developed and unique, it feels almost unfair to single out specific cast members for praise.
Galt MacDermot's music is alive and fresh in the hands of this talented band under the direction of Nadia Digiallonardo. The members of the onstage band are having just as much fun as the cast as they become members of the tribe themselves. They interact with the cast and actually become characters. The guitarists particularly seemed to have a good time. As someone who can no longer go to a concert without using earplugs, this show is loud, but just at the right level. Kudos to Acme Sound Design and whoever was on the board for the performance I saw. The sound was perfect.
Sasha Allen (C) and the Cast of Hair
The production is staged with precision as organized chaos by director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage. It is impossible to determine where one's work stops and the other's begins as the cast moves freely around the theatre. They use the entire theatre as their playground. They come from everywhere, the aisles, boxes, doors in the back wall of the stage, doors to the street. This director has successfully created what I can only imagine was the effect achieved during its run in the openness of Central Park. At the end of the show the majority of the cast exits through the back of the house. They then need to exit through the front doors of the theatre and run west on 45th Street to get back to the stage door in time for the curtain call. As the lights come up on the cast entering stage left you almost feel like they just ran a marathon to see who could be first for the curtain call. This only adds to the sense of excitement.
The set by Scott Pask is minimal and takes advantage of a mostly bare stage. I particularly enjoyed the incorporation of an old truck into the design of the bandstand for the stage. When not actively in scenes the cast uses the cab of the truck as a place to hide and catch a buzz. Pask has successfully found a way to incorporate the band onstage and not take up a lot of room. This is similar to the way that Robert Brill has stacked the orchestra for the current production of Guys and Doll.
If you are a true theatre lover, you will not miss your chance to see this gem of a revival. I had been looking forward to seeing Hair all season and was most certainly not disappointed.
Hair is playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre at 230 West 45th Street. Get Tickets
In other reviews...
In his review for the NY Times, Ben Brantley calls Hair a "thrilling revival" and says of the show "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." In speaking of the director: "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." Read the entire review
For the Associated Press, Michael Kuchwara says "Hair is the liveliest show in town." He says the show has "made the jump from a summer Central Park engagement to Broadway with all its exuberance intact - and more." Read the entire review
In Variety David Rooney says the production is "sharper, fuller and even more emotionally charged" than the Central Park production. Describing the effect of the cast on the audience: " 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." He concludes: " If this explosive production doesn't stir something in you, it may be time to check your pulse." Read the entire review
For Bloomberg, Jeremy Gerard says "Hair was then and is now the most exciting new show in town, not so much a breath of spring air as a jolt of adrenaline." Read the entire review