Thursday, July 14, 2011

REVIEW: Hair (National Tour/Return Broadway Engagement)

Welcome back to the Age of Aquarius!  Today's review is brought to you by my theatre buddy, Mike, who saw the National Tour of Hair this spring in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Thankfully, he agreed to write up the following review, as I will have no opportunity to see the show during its 10 week Broadway return at the St. James Theatre. (I did see the show just prior to its Broadway opening in 2009.)  Thanks, Mike! 

Review of the National Touring Company, currently playing the St. James Theatre on Broadway in New York City.  Starring Steel Burkhardt, Paris Remillard, Kacie Sheik, Caryn Lyn Tackett, Phyre Hawkins, Darius Nichols, Matt DeAngelis, Katlin Kiyan and Josh Lamon.  Choreographed by Karole Armitage.  Directed by Diane Paulus. 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.  Limited Broadway run through September 10.

Grade: A+

My biggest challenge in writing a review of this breathtaking, ebullient touring production of Hair is figuring out where and how to start heaping out the praise. So I'll dodge that question for now and begin with the one small reservation I had about the performance I saw in Hershey. It involves Paris Remillard, who gives an extremely moving, funny, and convincing performance as Claude - right up until the first verse of the show's final sequence, the point where his long hair has been shorn and he is about to be shipped overseas. Suddenly, for some reason, his singing seemed weak and his acting awkward, and not in a way that one could chalk up to an acting choice. Frankly, the thought crossed my mind that if the action had occurred during the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," all of Claude's problems would have been solved.

But that's it. The rest of the production was simply flawless - better than what I saw last year on Broadway (the National Tour of that production opened yesterday for a ten-week "Summer of Love" at the St. James Theatre). And, notwithstanding the above criticism, my enthusiasm certainly extends to Mr. Remillard, whose character drives the thin but powerful plot of Hair. Claude has to be convincing as the quasi-leader of a pack of joyful and rebellious hippies, but he also has to be convincing as a young man susceptible to the pressures of the outside world, capable of letting his principles slip away in the face of pushy parents and an army recruiter. The resulting journey of anguish and heartbreak, which forms the core of this show, is rendered in most exquisite fashion by Mr. Remillard, and (despite that one qualm) I can't imagine the role being in better hands.

Paris Remillard and Steel Burkhardt (center)
and the Hair Tribe

His performance is matched, laugh for laugh and tear for tear, by that of Caren Lyn Tackett, playing Sheila in this production. Having seen Hair twice now, this role remains, for me, slightly enigmatic: Sheila seems like the most grounded member of the Tribe, but also the one most inclined to real action and rebellion; likewise, although she seems to take love and romance more seriously than her peers, her exact romantic affiliations are difficult to pin down (if she loves Claude, why is she fanning Berger's passions by giving him that yellow shirt?). In short, it's a challenging role to put across clearly and convincingly, but Ms. Tackett does so, even better than the wonderful Diana DeGarmo on Broadway. Tackett may not be quite the singer that DeGarmo is, but she's much more of an actress. Her "Easy To Be Hard" was beautifully rendered and went a long way in clarifying the character's motivations and resolving the enigma.

Steel Burkhardt had the audience in the palm of his hands in the flashy role of Berger. His flirting and joking with the audience was natural and adorable, and helped to set the tone for the evening. In some ways Berger would seem to be the easiest of the three big roles in the show, given that his material is mostly light and humorous; by the same token, however, he's also the audience's direct link to the world of Hair, which (let's face it) is pretty remote from that of middle-class theatre-goers in Hershey (or even New York). It's absolutely crucial that he establish a strong rapport in his early, partially ad-libbed audience interaction scene, and that's exactly what he does. He makes you like him and invites you to understand his world, and that's basically what Hair is about.

In a show where every cast member is on stage for almost the entire show, and where the sense of community and the life of the Tribe essentially is the show, the quality of the supporting cast is no less important than that of the leading players. One weak link - one actor who is unsure of his/her character and that character's place in the Tribe - will stick out like a buzz cut. Fortunately, there is no weak link in this cast, many members of which are carry-overs from the previous Broadway production. I wish I could see this production over and over again and follow each character's arc; as it is, I think I could easily write a paragraph about each cast member, had we but world enough and time. But we don't, so let me single out some of the ones who made the most powerful impression.

"The Age of Aquarius": Phyre Hawkins (center)
and the Hair Tribe

Phyre Hawkins, as Dionne, sets the tone for the evening with a searing rendition of "Aquarius" and carries this spirit all the way through to "Let The Sun Shine In." I know that Jeff wishes this number sounded more like the Fifth Dimension, and I absolutely adore their cover of these songs. On stage, however, I wouldn't dream of trading Hawkins' soul and grit for Marilyn McCoo's sweeter tones (or the Tribe's spare harmonies for the Dimension's fuller sound, for that matter).

Woof, played here by Matt DeAngelis, is the oddest of many oddballs in this show, and I was genuinely worried about audience reaction when he started singing about "Sodomy" and all sorts of recreational activities. But DeAngelis won them over with his somewhat campy but committed performance. His lovable, teddy bear-ish demeanor is just what is needed to ensure that the character's innocence and warmth redeems his admitted weirdness. (To be honest, I think the show cops out a little when it comes to portraying this obviously gay character, but that's a criticism of the show itself, not the actor, and a small criticism at that.)

Darius Nichols, as Hud, bears the weight of one of the show's more serious themes, and does so with great poise. Think about it: his character has to critique racism by way of a couple of broadly satirical scenes involving a stream of racial epithets and indulging some of the most hateful stereotypes in American history. Yes, those songs (including "Colored Spade" and a chunk of the second-act acid trip sequence) are funny, but it's a big problem if that's all they are: the character of Hud must (a la Scottsboro Boys) make sure that the audience is both entertained and horrified at the fact that they find it so entertaining. I'm not exactly sure how you'd pull off something so powerful and yet so subtle; I guess the trick is to throw awkwardness to the wind and give it all of your professional might; regardless, Nichols does it easily.

Nichols, Burkhardt and DeAngelis

The quirky Josh Lamon makes a definite splash in the small but very, very memorable roles of Claude's mother and, especially, Margaret Mead. His rendition of "My Conviction" directly challenges the convictions of the audience members themselves, and this was another point where I was worried about audience reaction. How would this crowd react to Margaret's exhortation to "do whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone"? They reacted with cheers, and I think that's a testament to Lamon's own conviction in this role. (And his performance was convincing enough that the whole house was shocked when Margaret revealed her true self.)

Kacie Sheik, who has been with Hair since it opened on Broadway more than two years ago, is adorable (I think I've used that word three times, but in each case it's simply the right word) and heartbreaking as Jeanie, the pregnant girl hopelessly in love with Claude. She gets some of the best lines of the night (Mary Magdalene, anyone?) and the audience clearly loved her. Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention Katlin Kiyan, as Crissy, who makes the most of her time in the spotlight, giving us a beautiful and touching delivery of the (somewhat random first-act song) "Frank Mills."

Since this review is about a revival of a classic work, I won't spend much time discussing the material itself. Hair is an indelible part of our culture now, and you probably know whether you like the show or not! Judging from reports about previous productions (including a long conversation with Jeff), I gather that director Diane Paulus has imposed some order on the show, but it remains delightfully loose in form and in spirit. Paulus' concept is deeply committed to the show's original time and place (late 1960s New York), without any apparent hint of updating - and that's a good thing. (Someday, when people have forgotten about the 1960s, an "updated" production might be welcome, but for now it would just be a distraction.)

Surely Paulus' most striking contribution - and the one thing that transforms this production from a terrific stage show to a once-in-a-lifetime experience - is the extensive, almost non-stop audience interaction. Get an orchestra seat, and you're pretty much guaranteed to find Hud, Berger, or Woof within a few feet of you at some point, if not directly in your face. Though I'm sure there are those who find this annoying, I find it thrilling, and (like Berger's ad-libbing early in the show) essential to making this show seem current and vital. By the way, if you happen to be stuck in the mezzanine or balcony, don't despair: just make sure you wander down during the curtain call and you can join the actors on stage for the nightly "be-in."

The physical production, as far as I could tell, was identical to what I saw on Broadway last June. Lighting Design is by Kevin Adams, who did such stunning work for Spring Awakening, Next To Normal, and quite a few other recent shows; here his work is a bit more subdued than in those productions, but no less effective. (It seems like there's no surer indicator that I'll love a show than seeing Kevin Adams' name on the marquee.) His genius is especially clear near the end of Act One, when things start to turn tense for the rebellious Tribe as one of their brothers chooses to rebel against them; here, the lighting is as effective as any other element in conveying a sense of gloom and even a hint of death.

The Tribe

The scenic design by Scott Pask is a gem of functional simplicity. Mostly the Tribe needs a lot of space to gather, meditate, and get high, but they also need places to climb (the scaffolding that holds the orchestra) and hide (the period army truck at the rear of the stage). Speaking of the orchestra, they are of course terrific. As on Broadway, composer Galt MacDermot's original orchestrations are used here - as with the concept of the show itself, it would probably be a disservice and a distraction to update the sound to make it seem more modern or "polished." In the hands of music director David Truskinoff, the songs sound as fresh today as they did in 1968.

Costumes are by Michael McDonald and are, of course, based on iconic 1960s hippie styles; while relatively straightforward, they are appropriate and fun to look at, and there are certainly a lot of them. Jeanie's simple but colorful dress and, especially, Sheila's vaguely conservative attire help make these characters stand out from the rest. Likewise, while I never found myself particularly mesmerized by Karole Armitage's choreography, it was always effective and wholly appropriate to the show and the production. As with Spring Awakening, the last touring show I saw in southern Pennsylvania, I suspect the choreography is a great deal more complicated than it seems, and the fact that it comes across as so natural and unobtrusive is exactly as it should be.

This national tour of Hair will be going strong for almost another year, including this summer's stint in New York. If you've seen the show before, it's well worth another visit, and there are bound to be things you missed the first (or second or third...) time around. And if you haven't yet made friends with this touchstone of American culture, this is your opportunity to see a first-rate production that's pitch-perfect, thoroughly professional but not overly glossy. See it in your hometown, or head to the big city for the Summer of Love. Either way, the Tribe will welcome you with open arms.

(Photos by Joan Matcus)

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