While it was off-limits for review, the Public Theater’s 40th anniversary concert staging of “Hair” last summer was one of the more exhilarating New York theatrical events of the year. Directed by Diane Paulus with fluid physicality and performed with passionate conviction by its young cast, the presentation demonstrated that this landmark Vietnam-era rock musical — so often neutered by revival companies that substitute embarrassed flower-power affectation for the social commitment, political disillusionment, pacifism and bittersweet optimism that are its foundations — could still foster an urgent connection today. Those virtues are further strengthened in the full-scale season now back in Central Park.
Some productions have tried to circumvent the inescapable period-piece nature of “Hair” via contemporary updates, notably a 2005 revival at London’s tiny Gate Theater, which shifted the action to the age of terrorism, the Iraq War and AIDS. Perhaps it’s as much due to the current collective hunger for political change, fatigue with the war and eco-anxiety in a morally and economically depressed climate as to anything in the directorial approach, but this staging channels those same contemporary echoes without rewrites.
The draft may no longer be a factor and the means of rejecting the political establishment’s thinking may be less rooted in public protest, but the then-and-now parallels go beyond the obvious ones of two misguided, unpopular and seemingly unwinnable wars.
One of the stumbling blocks in revisiting the show, which auspiciously inaugurated the Public’s downtown space in 1967 before transferring to Broadway for a four-year run, has always been Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s unorthodox book. The seemingly chaotic psychedelic mosaic is structured as interwoven vignettes, increasingly driven by the efforts of a New York hippie community known as the Tribe to keep fresh-faced idealist Claude Hooper Bukowski out of Vietnam and allow him to fulfill his promise.
In addition to coming almost a decade too late — by which time the countercultural movement had been devalued by cynicism, co-opted by Madison Avenue and caricatured by its own iconoclastic imagery — Milos Forman’s 1979 movie tried to tame the material by imposing a more linear narrative.
By contrast, Paulus (best known for the Off Broadway hit “The Donkey Show” and recently appointed artistic director of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.) embraces the organic, free-flowing feel and spontaneous atmosphere of the show. Making extensive use of the aisles to connect actors and audience, she creates something akin to a happening in the park that honors the spirit of the musical and the liberating time in which it was conceived while subtly identifying its ongoing relevance. Judicious cuts to the book scenes help maximize the vitality, momentum and emotional charge of Galt MacDermot’s durably melodious score and the peace-love-and-freedom mantra of Ragni and Rado’s lyrics.
While the production is full of winning performances, the cast’s chief strength is its understanding that community is a central theme in “Hair.” This is a group bound together by like-minded political and personal beliefs, compassion and confusion, as well as by unapologetic hedonism, by melancholy over the impossibility of their utopian ideals and despair over humanity’s failings. Whether it’s the joyous self-expression of the first act or the pain of the second as events turn darker and “our eyes are open,” that unity infuses every scene.
Jonathan Groff (“Spring Awakening”) balances fragile introspection with reckless invulnerability as Shakespearean prince Claude, “destined for greatness or madness.” He powers through a rousingly athletic take on the celebratory anthem “I Got Life,” poignantly foreshadows his character’s outcome in “Where Do I Go” (and yes, the cast does get naked in the song’s closing bars), and harnesses the frustrated anger of a generation in his moving solo reprise of “Ain’t Got No” and the searing “The Flesh Failures.”
Will Swenson brings a suitably cocky swagger and volatility as charismatic Tribe leader Berger, pairing with Groff in a kick-ass rendition of the foot-stomping title song. As fellow frontmen Woof and Hud, respectively, Bryce Ryness and Darius Nichols also make vivid impressions.
Perhaps betraying the musical’s genesis as the work of three male authors, written relatively early in the hardcore feminist movement, the women characters are defined largely by their relationships with men. But Caren Lyn Manuel (stepping in for Karen Olivo, whose “In the Heights” commitment prevented her returning from last year’s concert) completes the Berger-Claude triangle with gritty self-possession, persuasively delivering Sheila’s wounded ballad, “Easy to Be Hard.”
Willowy diva Patina Renea Miller gets the show off to a galvanizing start with her dynamic vocals on “Aquarius,” as Tribe members appear to emerge out of the trees, scrambling over a rear fence onto the grass-covered stage. She later leads a sizzling trio (with Nicole Lewis and Saycon Sengbloh) through “White Boys.” Kacie Sheik puts a daffy spin on “Air,” while Allison Case’s “Frank Mills” is a concentrated dose of pure, unforced charm.
Megan Lawrence and Andrew Kober contribute droll turns as the clueless authoritarian Mother and Father figures, the former doubling as a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Claude’s hallucination and the latter as a gender-bending Margaret Mead.
Ensemble numbers like “Walking in Space” and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” are socked across with terrific energy and dramatic heft, while the finale, “Let the Sunshine In,” remains a potent piece of double-edged musical uplift. Hatched out of tragedy via lines from “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” the song effectively encapsulates the plea to dispel the darkness of a generation scarred by loss but not yet stripped of hope.
The flood of audience members of all ages mobbing the stage to dance with the cast during the “be-in” encore effectively caps the shared-experience aspect of the show.
Augmented since last year, the 12-piece onstage band improves on the concert’s thin cabaret sound with a more robust rock feel under Nadia Digiallonardo’s punchy music direction. With its period-appropriate, loosey-goosey interpretive moves, Karole Armitage’s choreography matches Paulus’ approach, frequently steering the ensemble to move en masse as a single organism. Set design is minimal, though Michael Chybowski’s trippy lighting enhances the mood and Michael McDonald’s boho-chic costumes help define the radically individualized style of each character.
Talk has long circulated about the viability of a full-scale Broadway revival of “Hair,” which has been absent from the main stem since a short-lived and premature 1977 remount. A transfer of this production remains a distinct possibility, but welcome as that prospect is, it’s hard to imagine the same thrill beneath a proscenium as the one being generated under the night sky in Central Park.