Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****
I knew there were going to be good vibes from the Broadway revival of Hair the moment I opened up my Playbill and those little white slips of paper fluttered out. Often that means disappointment - an understudy going on in place of a performer I really wanted to see.
This time, just the opposite happened. An actress I was really looking forward to seeing but who only had a small part, Saycon Sengbloh, was going to play a bigger role. In fact, as Dionne, she'd be opening the show, singing "Aquarius."
I was so excited and that bit of good fortune turned out to be only the beginning of an evening that I will never forget. I've seen so many wonderful shows over the past couple of years of theatergoing and this is one of the best - 2 1/2 hours of bliss that culminated in my Broadway debut.
First, there's the music, by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt McDermot. I've always been hugely interested in the 1960s and I've always loved the music of Hair. Hearing - and watching - those songs performed live - wow, they sounded great. Sometimes, like on "Ain't Got No," the audience joined in and clapped along.
The original production of Hair opened at the Public Theater in 1967, then moved to Broadway a year later. When I watched the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical and saw the cast climbing over seats and interacting with the audience at the Biltmore Theatre, I wished I'd been able to see it then. It looked like so much fun.
Well, thanks to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage I got a sense of what that experience must have been like. This is one show where the actors don't simply break the fourth wall, they shatter it completely. They are everywhere in the mezzanine and orchestra of the Hirschfeld Theatre. And it is so much fun.
Hair tells the story of a tribe of hippies, led by a charismatic Will Swenson as Berger, living in New York City's East Village. Really, I enjoyed the whole cast - they are all so likeable, especially Gavin Creel's sweet and conflicted Claude, Bryce Ryness as the Mick Jagger-obsessed Woof and Caissie Levy as the privileged college student Sheila.
I can't even imagine how shocking Hair was in 1968 - and I'm not just talking about the nudity. The hippies are everything that must have outraged their Depression and World War II-era parents. They leave school and grow their hair long and use drugs and sing the praises of interracial love and question authority. Hovering ominously over it all for the young men is the draft and the Vietnam War.
Under Paulus' direction Hair truly evokes the spirit of the decade. The generation gap is on full display. This is funny, joyous musical but it also doesn't gloss over some of the decade's more powerful - and brutal moments.
Paulus saves her most stunning image for the end, which is slightly different from Ragni and Rado's book. But it's absolutely the right choice and it left me choked up. I don't think I'll listen to "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sun Shine In" the same way ever again.
Hair doesn't shy away from presenting a pretty strong criticism of American policy in Southeast Asia. I can't imagine a Broadway show - much less a musical - being so political today.
But this is far from a period piece. I think the message still resonates. Whether there's a draft or an all-volunteer Army, Hair reminds us that we should always exercise the utmost caution before sending American troops into harm's way.
The 1960s was a decade of convulsive change in American society. But it was also a time of celebration - when all sorts of barriers were being broken. Fittingly, Hair ends with the ultimate breaking of the barrier between audience and performer - an invitation to join the tribe onstage.
Despite my nerves, despite my fear that I'd look and feel foolish up there, I leaped at the chance. You know what - it didn't matter that I couldn't carry a tune and had no sense of rhythm. No one was judging me. It was a thrilling experience, an incredible adrenaline rush and it got even better when, to my surprise, Kevin joined me.
For a few moments, I was a member of the tribe. And for the rest of my life I'll be able to say that I did something I never thought I'd have the nerve to do, never thought I'd have a chance to do: I sang and danced on a Broadway stage. Now, where do I get my Equity card?