Yes, since you are wondering, the cast of this Reprise! rendition of the seminal rock musical "Hair" does indeed enter sans clothes just before intermission, and this scene, as it should, seems emblematic of the whole endeavor. Just not for the reasons you'd expect. What's shocking isn't that they take off their clothes, but - cover the eyes of any children reading this part - they very briefly take off their microphones, too.
That this is so noticeable says plenty about how the musical theatre has changed since "Hair" premiered and about this production, which doesn't do much more than take a cultural artifact, scrub it until it's inauthentically shiny and give it a technological audio polish. Make no mistake about it:
This show is unrelentingly entertaining, but this is "Hair" as predigested commercial behemoth, not "Hair" as the "happening it's supposed to be. That said, the production, running for just 10 performances at the Wadsworth Theater, is so well sung that its weaknesses dissolve whenever the cast of flower children launches into one of the vibrant, melodic anthems of youthful idealism, irreverence or confusion that make up this most remarkable score.
"Hair" introduced rock music to Broadway when it opened in 1968, and there's no questioning its significant influence on the musical form, from near-contemporaries "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" all the way through the recent "Rent" and "Hedwig and the Angry Itch." "Hair" took the youth culture of the day and blended rock concerts with non-narrative "Laugh-In" - style comedy. With these elements, the current production, with musical direction by Peter Matz, succeeds admirably.
Sam Harris, as the Vietnam War draftee Claude, and Jennifer Leigh Warren, as political activist Sheila, deliver their songs flawlessly, mining the emotional depths of Galt MacDermot's compositions. The show peaks towards the end of act one, when harris leads the fine-voiced ensemble in the title song, followed by a terrific turn from supporting player Dan O'Brien - who has a powerful falsetto he shows off as the Tourist Lady who befriends the hanging-out hippies. That's then topped by Warren's piercing "Easy To Be Hard", the greatest musical moment of the evening.
Steven Weber of "Wings" fame, holds his own with the music. He's too old for his role of Berger, the leader of this tribe of '60s counterculture youth, but he's got the right raffish charm. Among other primary characters, Rod Keller, Allan Louis, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Stacy Francis give strong performances.
But the production misses out on something fundamental. "Hair" was a "happening," highly influences by Julian Beck and Judith Malina's Living Theater, which was thriving at the time. The show didn't just depict a "be-in," it was one, taking advantage of the theater's essential presentness to create an experience, something more than a show.
A director has a challenge with "Hair" to make it into more than just a standard period piece. But in this case, Arthur Allan Seidelman doesn't even try to do more; he's just the master logistician rather than an imaginative force. When actors wade out into the audience to dance with the members of the crowd, it's all very cutesy, which is a quality this show emits constantly. It's even a bit condescending to its material.
The set, by robert L. Smith, is simple enough, with a tier of scaffolding providing an additional layer of playing space, and with a trippy, but not too silly, bursting sun in the background. Scott A. Lane's costumes, though, are way over the top, commenting on the characters rather than expressing them, and the wigs are pretty awful.
The problem is that the pseudo-'60s getups serve as a shield, keeping even the still relevant portions of this show decidedly removed from the present. (There's a satirical ode to power supplier Con-Ed, for goodness sake! -- if they can't make electrical blackouts seem relevant, then fuggedaboudit.)
This sense of distance is worsened by the heavy use of microphones, even though sound designer Philip G. Allen adds some appealing studio-like effects. In a show with this type of sound-system, which has become the standard, the voices become disembodied. There can be a performer right next to you, jiggling and singing in the aisle, but you can't single out the voice since it's coming from the speakers in front of the stage. It's a strange effect for a show that's at least in part about individuality. Even onstage, the audience relies on Tom Ruzika's lighting to identify who's singing. Travis Payne's gyrating choreography is all perfectly fine, but it's never exciting or especially expressive.
While it wouldn't have been as commercial, this show almost
certainly would have been more potent if it were done as a concert, which
was how the Reprise! series began. That way, we'd get a sense of
the performers as themselves, connecting with this material in a way deeper
than the bland, fake nostalgia that we have here. Less really can
Copyright Daily Variety.