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They arrive in battalions, stretching luminously across an elevated platform at the back of the stage. Swathed in a misty lighting that seems to emanate from inside, as if such an effect might be generated by the percolating hormones, they look just a bit dangerous in their contained, combustible energy. And, boy, wouldn't you like to borrow a little of that glow for yourself?
The message, sent forth so tantalizingly in the opening
minutes of the new production of "Hair" that runs at City Center through
Monday, is a mouthwatering theatrical promise: youth will be served tonight — scrambled, coddled and fried (drugs will figure, of course), but mostly sunny side up.
Thus begins the season's final, hearteningly vibrant offering from the Encores! series of American musicals in concert. And as staged by the director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, this prefatory moment almost instantly summarizes and justifies her intentions in recreating this self-defined "tribal love-rock musical" from 1967.
The dewiness of the cast members as they materialize in phalanxes does indeed give you a wistful rush. But the feeling doesn't really come from nostalgia for a time when promiscuity and drug use seemed penalty-free. No, it's about a less period-specific sense of all that unpolluted potential in one place.
I realized that the last time I felt like that was at a previous Encores! production in which another bunch of bubbling, impudent kids sang confidently about changing the world. It was a Rodgers and Hart show called "Babes in Arms," first seen in 1938.
Of all the musicals that Encores! has presented, "Hair" would appear to be the hardest to rejuvenate. It is still fresh in the memories of middle-aged audience members, many of whom doubtless recall the show's era with at least a tinge of embarrassment.
The pointedly topical book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado anchors "Hair" firmly in the age of the Vietnam War and Timothy Leary. It's been around long enough to have grown mildew, but not long enough to have passed on to that state of beloved innocence conferred by distance.
What Ms. Marshall's production does so cannily is to place
"Hair" on theshow-business continuum that includes "Babes in Arms" and
the "New Faces" revues. As its composer, Galt MacDermot, said in an interview
in 1993: " `Hair' isn't really a political show. It's about kids having
fun and making fun of things." He went on, in a reference to an anarchic
comic frolic of the late 1930's, to describe it as "the
`Hellzapoppin' ' of its generation."
Such parallels were noted by critics even when "Hair" opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival, shortly thereafter transferring to Broadway for a run of 1,750 performances. In The New York Times, Howard Taubman reached back to the 1920's for points of comparison: "Whatever reservations one may have about `Hair,' one is constantly disarmed by the youngsters' engaging high spirits, which is exactly how the youngsters in `The Grand Street Follies' and `The Garrick Gaieties' made their audiences feel."
And this is what Ms. Marshall, the former artistic director of Encores!, has capitalized on. In casting the show's antiwar, peace-and-love-making denizens of the East Village, she has chosen performers with open faces and styles that, while polished, have yet to acquire a gleaming professional lacquer.
Eric Millegan, the soloist in the opening song, "Aquarius," might have stepped straight from a junior choir loft. And while the succeeding numbers include all manner of unprintable words and references, the production holds on to the sweetness found in the graceful awkwardness of adolescence.
That spirit is channeled in a series of songs and sketches that have more in common with vaudeville and the musical hall than you may remember: ditties ("Initials"), ballads ("Easy to Be Hard"), pastiches of big-band close harmony and of country and western. There is also a long hallucinatory sequence that takes a fractured, highly subjective tour of American history as well as that fabled scene in which a middle-aged couple comes to gawk at the hippies in Washington Square.
This is put across with a winning mixture of blitheness
and earnestness by a bright team that includes Tom Plotkin, Idina Menzel
(of "Rent"), Brandi Chavonne Massey, Kevin Cahoon and Miriam Shor. They
don't create characters so much as free-floating personalities, although
Luther Creek, the evening's great find, affectingly gives the show a more
somber emotional dimension as the conflicted,
The choreography is simple and spirited, if occasionally a shade precious. (Do real hippies skip?) And Ms. Marshall and her production team — especially the lighting designer, Ken Billington — achieve a haunted, fluid continuity for the tripping sequence that makes up most of the second act.
As usual, Rob Fisher is the musical director, though without the usual tuxedo (he wears a black tunic shirt) or the usual full Coffee Club Orchestra. Instead, there is an 11-piece band, which includes Mr. MacDermot on keyboards and appealingly reminds us of the contagious tunefulness of "Hair."
In fact, the songs often feel more directly descended from the traditions of Broadway than of acid rock. And just think of the individual numbers that became radio hits: "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine," "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In)," "Easy to Be Hard," and the title song, all rendered here with happy, full-throated gusto.
"Hair" would mark the last time that a Broadway score would filter so pervasively into the mainstream of the pop charts, a transition taken for granted in the days of Rodgers and Hart. None of its theatrical imitators would achieve anything like the same success.
This delightfully unpretentious production suggests that
"Hair" really didn't signal the beginning of a new era in musicals. How
strange that it now seems instead like a giddy throwback to a time when
Broadway could still plug in directly to a wide American public.
Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado; music
by Galt MacDermot.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.
Musical director, Rob Fisher.
Set consultant, John Lee Beatty;
costume consultant, Martin Pakledinaz;
lighting by Ken Billington;
sound by Scott Lehrer;
production stage manager, Bonnie L. Becker;
musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press;
associate choreographer, Joey Pizzi.
Encores! Presented by City Center, Judith E. Daykin, president and executive
director; artistic director, Jack Viertel; musical director, Mr. Fisher;
director-in-residence, Ms. Marshall. At 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Luther Creek (Claude), Tom Plotkin (Berger), Idina
Menzel (Sheila), Kevin
Cahoon (Woof), Michael McElroy (Hud), Miriam Shor (Jeanie), Brandi Chavonne
Massey (Dionne), Jessica-Snow Wilson (Crissy) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (General Grant).
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