St. James Theatre - August 2011
Reviewed by John Kenrick
Long before the phrase "it is what it is" became a conversational cliché, the ancient Romans had an equivalent phrase in Latin -- "sui generis." It means "of its own kind." When a cat chases a mouse, or a teenager lies, or a Tea Party Republican says something reeking of ignorance, there is no reason for surprise. Such behavior is "sui generis," no more or less than one should expect from this kind.
Hair was Broadway's first rock musical hit, and while it will never be one of my favorites, after more than forty years it has earned the right to be taken on its own terms. When it first showed up off-Broadway in 1967, it was something of a shocker with its hard rock score, murky dramaturgy, virulent anti-establishment sentiment and righteous teenage angst. Other rock musicals embodying youthful rebellion would follow, from Dude to Rent to American Idiot -- and if seeing Hair today invokes clear memories of the hard rock scores, murky dramaturgy, virulent anti-establishment sentiment and righteous teenage angst in those later shows, perhaps that is because they are simply all "of their own kind."
The revival of Hair that won raves on Broadway two years ago has returned from the road for a brief summer run. From the sunny, energetic performances and picturesque period costumes (albeit way too spic and span for late 1960s hippies), to the naive youthful righteousness; from the lyrics that veer from dreamy to preachy and back again, to the music that veers between timeless anthems and forgettable quickies, this production of Hair is very much "sui generis." In other words, most fans of the show are likely to be delighted. The total absence of rough edges or grit are not so much a cop out as they are a gentle refusal to allow accuracy to get in the way of the fantasy vision of what might have been. Every other generation in recent memory has indulged in similar revisionist nostalgia. The rebellious white trash teenagers of the 1950s were cleaned up in revivals of Grease, and the harsh racial conflicts of the early 1960s were sweetly sanitized in the jubilant Hairspray, so why not let Hair celebrate its era in the same fresh-scrubbed spirit?
That celebration includes some great songs by composer Galt MacDermott and co-lyricists Jerome Ragni and James Rado. "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In" have withstood the test of time, and the score is littered with many less-celebrated treats. The gleeful celebrations of the charms of "Black Boys" and "White Boys," the joyous titular celebration of "Hair," the Shakespearean eloquence of "What a Piece of Work is Man," the aching uncertainty of "Where Do I Go" -- as performed by this gifted cast of newcomers, it is easy to understand why these songs moved audiences over 40 years ago, because they still have power today.
The once infamous nude sequence now seems rather innocent, not only because the ensemble is fresh and attractive, but because it genially avoids any hint of eroticism. Clothes are shed in an expression of youthful freedom, and if most of the bodies bespeak a sculted, gym-toned buffness unheard of among real 60s hippies, the resulting view is certainly easy on the eyes.
No wonder audiences have embraced this production of Hair -- all of the fun and damn near none of the danger.