Caren Lyn Manuel
Patina Renea Miller
John M. Moauro
There’s a be-in taking place in Central Park this month, and all are invited thanks to Shakespeare in the Park’s egalitarian ticket distribution policy, which allows interested parties to line up each day of performances for free tickets. Don’t know what a be-in is? It doesn’t matter. The jubilant band of hippies that make up the cast of Shakespeare in the Park’s revival of the self-proclaimed “American tribal love-rock musical” Hair will clarify.
Hair, which exploded on the downtown theatre scene 41 years ago when it opened at the Public Theater and quickly transferred to the Biltmore on Broadway, has little plot to speak of and follows the exploits of a so-called “tribe” of hippie youth in New York City.
The gang to whom we’re introduced is a ragtag bunch. They believe in creating a utopia but come to realize even utopias have their internal affairs mishaps. More than just a fascinating reminder of the past, Hair is absolutely of its time but also presents themes relevant to our own, particularly as regards war and environmentalism, as in songs like Where Do I Go? and Air.
Sure, by now it’s a bit dated, but what’s most plainly clear in this production – however misguidedly – is that Hair is, first and foremost, flowery and fun. Utilizing the outdoor setting of the Delacorte Theatre to its fullest, scenic designer Scott Pask has given the tribe an on-stage lawn on which to frolic, and the bouncy band is placed in a stained-glass bandshell center stage, allowing conductor Nadia Digiallonardo and her floppy hippie hat a prime perch. For a show so attached to elementalism, to the sun- and starshine, the outdoor experience is ideal.
Things are clearly off to a winning start as powerhouse Patina Renea Miller as Dionne belts Aquarius as it’s never been belted before. Hers is a brief but notable performance strong enough to warrant a visit to this extraordinarily well-sung production of a show with plenty of bouncy, 1960s-style songs. After all, Hair was the last musical to contribute any hit songs to the pop music canon. Aquarius and Let the Sunshine In, in medley format, provided a hit for the Fifth Dimension, and Hair, covered by the Cowsills, had a similar impact on popular culture.
Luckily, the cast is uniformly strong, bringing acting ability as well as the necessary pop-rock edge needed for the psychedelic roller coaster ride that is Hair. Will Swenson wears a haughty swagger as Berger, and Jonathan Groff is fittingly fickle as teenage rebel Claude, both of them pining after Caren Lyn Manuel, who, as Sheila, is at once strong and sultry, sending her songs flying sweetly into the Central Park stratosphere. The main trio are supported by Kacie Sheik as spacy Jeanie and Bryce Ryness as confused Woof, a moppy-haired, sexually confused Mick Jagger-obsessive.
It’s brave that director Diane Paulus and costume designer Michael McDonald have allowed Hair to be exactly what it is – a period piece. As tempting as it is for directors and designers to succumb to the urge to conceptualize the show, to somehow bring it into some alternate timeless setting, mentions of L.B.J. and Timothy Leary, amongst others, keep Hair from making a smooth transition. Even despite a faithful period treatment, however, there’s still something noticeably lacking in Paulus’s serviceable, sloppy direction, which makes all too frequent use of “act like a hippie” cliche and misplaced mugging.
The musical’s “trip” sequence, a hippie-dippy jaunt through the distortions of American history, has never been so clear, aided by Saycon Sengbloh’s pitch-perfect Abe Lincoln, but for every moment of focus, there’s another oddly lacking. And though the piece is unsuited to strict, tight choreography, Karole Armitage’s dances leave something to be desired, resorting to provocative posing and plenty of jumping around, the overall effect exuding an air of frustrating aimlessness.
The production’s final moments sum it all up. As crowd-pleaser Let the Sunshine In comes to its conclusion, the final emotional moments are glaringly misdirected. The show’s final casualty lies splayed out on the American flag, the intensity of the moment eclipsed by the roar of the crowd. Next the bows begin, and the audience is invited on-stage for a brief post-show dance party, just another indication of the emphasis here of fun over focus. There is plenty of playfulness here to be praised, for sure, but I wished the show’s darker moments were allowed a degree of resonance to match. In the end, Hair is a show that requires at least a few remaining kinks, not a dye-job and a straightener, as Paulus may believe.