The 1960s was a decade of civil rights marches, anti-war protests and greater intimacy, and “Hair” was the show.
Admittedly thin on plot, but rich in evocative and witty songs, this taboo-defying musical pushed the theatrical envelope with songs embracing black-white relationships, Vietnam war draft-dodging, environmentalism, sexual freedom and even nudity. Daring for its time, “Hair” still resonates four decades later in an America where President Barack Obama’s citizenship is still questioned and many politicians spend more time trying to legislate morality than create new jobs.
“Hair” calls on its characters and the actors who play them to become as comfortable with each other as members of a Native American tribe. In the bare bones plotting of the show, all of the members of the tribe — African American and white, male and female, religious and non-religious — often huddle and move together in common purpose against the Vietnam War and in favor of making love and sharing drugs.
If some of the characters seem narcissistic and irresponsible on a personal level, they nevertheless are willing to take strong public stands about racism and war in a way that is rarely matched by many of their young counterparts today.
Even in the musical, once straight-laced Claude, called up by the draft, struggles to decide whether to burn his draft card, dodge the draft in Canda or serve in the Vietnam War. Besides flamboyant maverick Berger’s being kicked out of school, Claude’s moment of truth and what happens at the end of the show are the only actual plot details in a musical that is more of an arresting experience than a structured work. That ending is very powerful indeed at the Colonial Theatre.
Diane Paulus stages the experience with such brilliant blocking and total theater involvement that even the most demanding theatergoers are not likely to care. Throughout the two-act musical, cast members — individually and in groups — circulate, dance and frolic through the aisles and even in some rows. They play with audience members’ hair, hug them and even sit in some laps. Steel Burkhardt, an exuberant standout as Claude’s best friend Berger, even asks a theatergoer to hold his pants early on when the uninhibited character struts around in his briefs.
As the audience becomes an extension of the tribe, cast members also explore the boxed seats and eventually invite adventurous audience members to dance on stage. After seeing cast members cavorting smartly in Karole Armitage’s inspired choreography, that on-stage participation is a no-brainer.
While Paris Remillard, who sings the exultant “I Got Life” with remarkable resonance and captures Claude’s vulnerability as well as his courage, is as compelling as Burkhardt, supporting players have their own strong moments. Phyre Hawkins as Dionne, delivers the opening “Aquarius” with an excitingly booming voice. Darius Nichols, who plays black militant Hud, brings properly sharp attitude to “Colored Spade,” a clever put-down of racial epithets and bigotry.
Kacie Sheik has the right likeability as pregnant Jeanie, who adores Claude (not the father), though Caren Lyn Tackett needs to be less acerbic as principled war protester Sheila. Two group numbers, “Black Boys” and “White Boys,” sung in a kind of thematic pair, endorse miscegenation with humor and rich harmony.
No matter what the style or length of your hair — Afro, curly, even balding — hurry to the Colonial. “Hair” twinkles all over the theater, and the planet is at peace for two blissful hours.