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Review: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical

Joyful noise and political optimism at the Kennedy Center

Star rating: **** out of 4

Hair isn’t really a musical. It’s a fabulous over-the-top extravaganza recreating the brief moment in American history when youthful outrage and idealism seemed to rule the world.

But before I discuss the Kennedy Center’s production, a mea culpa: It’s the job of the theater critic to watch the show objectively, then sneak quietly up the aisle during the curtain calls, before the enthusiasm of the audience can influence your critical faculties. (It’s also a plausible excuse to be the first to get to the parking lot.) But I stayed through the standing ovation at the end of Hair, accepted the invitation to the audience to join the cast on stage for the encore of “Let the Sun Shine In,” hugged at least one cast member, and high-fived several fellow audience members who, like myself, were old enough to remember the era that inspired the original production.

In my own defense, I dare anyone with a pulse to see Hair and not want to get up and dance, sing, clap hands, or kiss your neighbor. The hypnotic energy on stage and in the aisles is impossible to resist.

Hair is the loosey-goosey story of group of kids in New York in the late ’60s who reject their parents’ conventional lifestyles and beliefs in favor of dropping out, tripping out, and hooking up. One of the tribe gets a draft notice and suddenly the slogans on the protest signs become all too real.

The original 1968 Tony Award-winning musical created by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York shocked audiences with its nudity, vivid portrayals of sex and drug use, and blatant challenges to racism and the Vietnam War. The 2009 Tony Award-winning revival has the appealing energy of the original if not its topicality.

We no longer gasp when we hear young white girls sing, “black boys are delicious,” but we are still touched when a naïve Crissy sings about the boy she met outside the Waverly Theater: “I don’t want the $2 back, just him.” The one jarring note is the revulsion toward a soldier in uniform—a Vietnam-era sentiment that feels so wrong now. But it accurately reflects the period.

Hair is an ensemble piece, but it takes strong voices as well as agile bodies to pull it off. The cast is constantly in motion, and there are numerous solos. This company, lead by Steel Burkhardt as Berger and Paris Remillard as Claude, is easily up to the task. Remillard is particularly effective as the rebel in search of a cause.

Hair is a dream for costume and set designers. Hippie excesses are in full psychedelic mode here. But the plumage never overshadows the personalities. Hair lets the sun shine in at the Kennedy Center. It’s a love-in at a time we could really use one.

At the Kennedy Center Opera House through November 21. Tickets ($25 to $99) are available here.

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