Theater Reviews



Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York (Through Aug. 31)

One might think that a revival of "Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" would be as dated as draft cards, tie-dyes and love beads. Think again. This 150-minute celebration of the human spirit now seems more hip, heartbreaking and undeniably rousing than ever.

True, headlines of death tolls in the Middle East make the production's anti-war message sadly relevant. But 40 years after its Broadway debut, the show's unique take on love in all its permutations is the driving force of a work that's as deliciously entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The musical's simplicity and no-frills approach begins as the amazingly athletic cast, dressed in period garb, climbs and jumps from a six-foot stockade fence onto a patch of Central Park's green grass (the sole set piece), then launches into one of the most iconic songs of the 1960s: "Aquarius."

Although no one would accuse what follows as being plot-heavy, the narrative focuses on the soul-searching of recently drafted Claude (Jonathan Groff), who hasn't yet decided whether to head to Vietnam or Canada. He gets plenty of guidance from his extended family of flower children, led by the ultra-charismatic Berger (Will Swenson) and cop-hating Sheila (Caren Lyn Manuel).

The book and lyrics, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, then explore Claude's battles with the generation gap, authority in general and the shape-shifting face of l'amour. And thanks to Galt MacDermot's amazingly eclectic music, it's accomplished through one crowd-pleasing number after another, ranging from rock to ballad to country to soul.

Amazingly, the show also is still capable of raising an eyebrow. A song poking fun at racist euphemisms might yet induce seat-squirming, while dramatic use of the cast's full-frontal nudity -- never mind some touchy-feely homoeroticism -- makes one realize why '60s audiences were at once hypnotized and shocked at the goings-on. Claude's drug-induced hallucination in Act 2 also pushes boundaries, though it continues about five minutes too long and temporarily loses momentum.

That's a minuscule price to pay for the chance to witness Karole Armitage's consistently engaging choreography and Diane Paulus' brilliant direction. Indeed, a spine-tingling interpretation of "Let the Sunshine In" as a poignant cry to a world gone mad is inspired, along with a curtain call that alone is worth a trip to Central Park. (Those who hate audience participation are duly warned.)

And that's not even mentioning the cast of more than 20, all of whom are not only strong-voiced but also equipped with bodies that showcase six-pack abs or Playboy-worthy torsos. Among them, Groff, best known for his Tony-nominated work in "Spring Awakening," hits all the right notes as the confused Claude, while Manuel's plaintive rendition of "Easy to Be Hard" is a show-stopper.

But it's Swenson's work as Berger that dominates. Whether letting his 1,000-watt grin illuminate his matinee-idol looks, gyrating to a fare-thee-well or putting his magnetic spin on the likes of the title song, Swenson is clearly destined for big things.

There's already talk of "Hair" heading to the Great White Way upon wrapping up at the Delacorte. If so, Broadway audiences -- like current viewers in Central Park -- should treasure this opportunity to feel the love for 2 1/2 hours.

Cast: Jonathan Groff, Will Swenson, Bryce Ryness, Darius Nichols, Caren Lyn Manuel, Patina Renea Miller, Kacie Sheik, Allison Case, Megan Lawrence, Andrew Kober. Book-lyrics: James Rado, Gerome Ragni. Music: Galt MacDermot. Director: Diane Paulus. Scenic designer: Scott Pask. Costume designer: Michael McDonald. Lighting designer: Michael Chybowski. Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners. Choreographer: Karole Armitage.