Review: 'Hair'

By Wendy Rosenfield

Somehow, Hair just keeps growing. After sweeping every Broadway award-giving outlet’s Best Musical Revival category in 2009, its national tour doesn’t smell the least bit like mothballs, occupying Philly with more enthusiasm — and much better music — than a Dilworth Plaza drum circle.

Of course, Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot’s musical is all about the Age of Aquarius, the summer of love that couldn’t keep its bummers at bay. Vietnam, but also racism, sexism and homophobia tug at the hippies’ carefree aspirations, bringing the tribe closer while ultimately tearing it apart. Though the war still powers its plot, Diane Paulus’ direction turns a spotlight on the story’s additional facets, with a subtle emphasis on the women in particular, longing, nursing broken hearts, and feeling powerless even among this powerless group.

The show’s central amorous triad, earthy Berger (Steel Burkhardt), pure-of-heart Claude (Marshal Kennedy Carolan) and NYU trustafarian Sheila (Sara King), also struggles with these conflicts. They’re in Berger’s casual cruelty toward Sheila and Claude’s ambivalence about the draft. But the other kids have hangups, too, and the enduring strength of Hair is the way it captures the terrors and joys of being young in America.
The production itself occurs in front of a Peter Max-style sunburst-painted backdrop, with a band scattered among the various rickety stairs and platforms that constitute Scott Pask’s set. Karole Armitage’s organic choreography sends the performers out into the audience to ruffle tresses or hand out flowers, and brings them back onstage, dancing in their granny dresses and dashikis as individuals, then again within a tight, unified cluster.

It’s not easy to make the Academy of Music feel intimate, but Burkhardt’s easygoing charisma and audience banter set the evening’s tone (and FYI, if you’re late he’ll be wearing a fringed leather thong and will probably smooch you; take that as either a warning or inducement to tarry). However, King’s Sheila, during the doleful “Easy to Be Hard,” and Phyre Hawkins’ Dionne, soaring through the finale “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In” pull every chair in that 2,500 seat house about 10 rows closer to the stage.

If Hair’s parallels between ’60s turmoil and contemporary issues are underscored via direction, the inevitability of those parallels still stings. When Sheila returns from the 1967 Rally on the Mall with a breathless account of being tear-gassed, it immediately recalls those Zuccotti Park and U.C. Davis cops casually pepper-spraying everything. While singing along to its anthems, it’s hard not to also wonder what will strike nerves during future revivals.

Playing at: The Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Through Jan. 8. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 215-731-3333 or