A Hair Short: The Public Theater’s hippie hop is a long walk down memory lane

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The producers of the Public Theater’s loving revival of Hair in Central Park have put aside the reality that most of us recall not the original (and far less linear) 1968 Broadway production, but instead the lean, fun 1979 Milos Forman film adaptation. I left the Delacorte Theater last Saturday night with renewed respect for the Czech movie director who took the Broadway version and re-fashioned it into a tight, endearing movie musical, mostly by cutting songs that stretched out the simple story into an epic rock-opera of emotional uplift.  But by the end of a long night at the Delacorte–one that included actors roaming the aisles for loose change, waving their hair in people’s faces and, at the end, inviting the audience onstage to boogie–I had given in, like everyone else, to the intoxicating power of a natural high. 

There’s really not much point denying the power of the dozen or so songs that make Hair a classic: this production offers near-perfect renditions of “Aquarius,” “Let The Sun Shine In,” “Where Do I Go?” and “Hair” –along with one song wrongly cut from the movie, the spectacular and haunting “Frank Mills.” It’s fun to watch well-trained actors bring to life lyrics imbedded in your brain, and hear melodies that soar; it’s a musical score as good as any ever performed on a Broadway stage, with endlessly brilliant, hilarious lyrics. And the cast assembled to stage for this production has the looks and talent to keep even the most hardened cynic mesmerized. The first act takes off so fast, and forges such a strong emotional connection with an audience who has long ago memorized the melodies, that it’s nearly impossible to let go of its pull.

And yet, to my surprise, boredom sets in quickly after intermission, when an epic hallucination sequence–wisely trimmed in the movie–strings together several songs that stop the show’s heart-stopping pleasures dead in its tracks. It’s no creative crisis–this production will move to Broadway and collect tons of awards, have no doubt–but would it have hurt the cause to cut judiciously from a show with more than two dozen songs and multiple reprises? With so many back-to-back pleasures in Hair, it seemed indulgent to restore every melody removed by Forman in his equally moving interpretation. 

This is a minor quibble with Hair, a long-overdue and mostly-inspired answer to the prayers of those who stand for hours every summer in the hopes of a wonderful bargain in a spectacular setting–and frequently end up disappointed. I loved the performance of Jonathan Groff as Claude Hooper Bukowski; even though I preferred the character’s hick-to-hippie transformation added to Hair by the movie’s screenwriter, Michael Weller, Groff managed to make sense of the original, muddled conception of Claude as a hippie to begin with.  

The point of a nostalgia trip like this is to restore sensations lost or forgotten over time, and even this flawed production succeeds on that level, especially if you’re the type to enjoy making googly eyes with actors when they come visit you at your seat. I’m not, but this show succeeds at making a human connection in other ways, most of them musical. And the epic, thrilling rendition of “Let The Sun Shine In” at the curtain call gives the audience time to revel privately in whatever pleasures they associate with those bygone days–and to enjoy the chance to sing along with the gifted, gorgeous cast under the spell of an August moon. It’s enough to justify the indulgence of brilliant artists who should have known better than to reject some shrewd, delicate editing of their timeless masterpiece.

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