'Hair' lets the sun shine in on Broadway

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What's most remarkable about the latest revival of "Hair" that officially opened Wednesday, July 13, at the St. James Theatre, is what a great time the actors seem to be having.

That spirit is contagious. By the end, as everyone sings "Let the Sun Shine In," the audience is caught up in the giant love fest, and people rush the stage to groove with the dancers.

That's what it's meant to be. Still, don't let the good vibes mask that this is a musical with a serious message. Set in 1967, it's about a group of young adults in the midst of the seismic changes rocking the country. They're against the Vietnam War, for free love, and women and blacks are fighting for equality.

The musical, which does seem to open and revive itself with astounding frequency, was controversial when it opened in 1968. With song titles such as "Sodomy," actors simulating sex on stage, many references to drugs and a racially mixed cast, it was bound to be a flashpoint. Oh, and that naked scene attracted attention.

The musical dared to be political; it dared to show that youth questioned elders and that America had to change. Gerome Ragni and James Rado wrote the book and lyrics and Galt MacDermot did the music for "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical."

Considering how often the 1960s have been celebrated on Broadway recently, it's refreshing to see a time when bellbottoms and fringe vests were worn instead of sharkskin suits and skinny ties. It's also refreshing to be reminded that the 1960s wasn't just this sleek time of white men earning loads of money while everyone else was thrilled to be working for that cause.

And protesting America's involvement in distant, unending wars does have resonance.

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This production is better, tighter and more electric than the one that closed just a year ago. And yes, they are naked, albeit briefly and in dim lighting. They are also so exuberantly alive, singing and dancing in the aisles, on the theater seats and in people's laps that it's impossible to not get caught up in the frenzy.

From the opening, when Phyre Hawkins as Dionne gets her first chance to belt in "Aquarius," many of the songs are so familiar.   Steel Burkhardt, as Berger, is as charismatic and sexy as he should be. Paris Remillard is Claude, his best friend, who's torn between being a hippie and a soldier, is terrific.

Darius Nichols, who plays Hud, is great fun. Sure he's an excellent singer and dancer, but he also pretty much had much of the audience in love with him. The only off note comes from Kacie Sheik as Jeanie, the pregnant, flighty one. If any musical ever defined ensemble, it's this one, but she all but pushes others off stage in her bid to shine.

But this show, with all of its hair and fringe, is always larger than one player.

Even though the Vietnam War is taught in history classes and kids dress up as hippies for Halloween, the play remains relevant because fighting for justice doesn't go out of style. And singing and dancing about it doesn't either. 
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus