Hair in Boston: From Banned To Beloved

It wasn’t like this the first time around.  Back in 1970 the rock musical “Hair” got the banned in Boston treatment .. obscenity charges, desecration of the flag allegations .. not pretty .. in fact pretty angry.  Youth culture in revolt, the establishment fighting back .. but did anyone take the time to watch the show?

Four decades later “Hair” is in a much better place .. the Colonial Theatre, which was pretty much custom made for Diane Paulus’ wonderful revival of a show that weaves its way into your heart.  I’m just not sure how a production that was born in a cauldron of turbulent change, now feels like a long lost quilt, pulled from the hope chest in the attic.

But here it is, “Hair” 2011 .. same characters, same insanely catchy songs, same bell bottoms and halter tops, same story line as thin as Donald Trump’s comb-over.  Except now, instead of feeling like we’re being handed a free love manifesto, we’re simply allowed to transport to a time where a new reality was being planted in a nation at war with itself.  Labels were finally being torn off: sex, color, creed, orientation were no longer barriers to happiness and fulfillment.  No matter who you were, you could be part of the tribe.  What’s clearer now, than the naiveté then, is the complications and failings of too many drugs and too little responsibility.

Yeah, I know … too heavy.  So here’s the fun stuff.  “Hair” is blessed with a dream cast of charismatic performers.  Right from the start, hippie ringleader Berger (Steel Burkhardt) is in your grill … with a tasseled loin cloth no less.  He’s loud, he’s rude, and he’s ready and willing to tear it up.  Then comes the spacey Woof (Matt DeAngelis) .. earth mamma Jeanie (Kacie Sheik) .. righteous Dionne (Phyre Hawkins) .. afro-licious Hud (Darius Nichols) .. soulful Claude (Paris Remillard) and sultry Sheila (Caren Lyn Tackett).  They all throw themselves into songs that against all odds have become pop music classics. “Aquarius” .. “Hair” .. “Easy to be Hard” .. “Good Morning Starshine” .. “Let the Sun Shine In.”  Whatever magical circumstance brought “Hair” creators Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot together back in 1967, created a work of enduring charm, and surprising durability.

Paulus, who’s also Artistic Director of Boston’s A.R.T., wisely didn’t try to blow us away with stage craft in this one.  The tribe performs in front of a simple wooden scaffolding that supports a solid rock combo, and allows for some vertical movement.  Most of the time the cast is coming right at the audience .. into the seats .. up the aisles.  You’re not just watching the show … you’re in it!  The sixties era clothes are absolutely spot on.  The mish- mash of vests and ponchos and personalized denim (hats and beads off to costume designer Michael McDonald) .. they all fit the actors like a second skin .. and that’s before we get to see their first skin!

Yes, kids, the nude scene is in there.  Perfectly done too.  Natural, real, and without shame.  The cast is so adorable that seeing them naked is about as shocking as seeing your kids at bath time.  It’s important for the authenticity of the show to drop all pretensions … even while others are being perpetuated.

Watching this story that revolves around war, intolerance, and society in turmoil feels remarkably fresh and timely.  Current events also give “Hair”  a real gravitas. This is no nostalgia piece. This “Hair” is full, and substantial.  You feel it in the voices of the cast.  You experience it in the poignant and heartbreaking image of Claude lying  in his military uniform under gently falling snow.  You celebrate it in the ringing chorus of “Let the Sun Shine In.”

“Hair” is a bittersweet celebration .. and one not to be missed.

“Hair” has a three week run at the Colonial Theatre, through April 10.

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