The Aficionado Makes His Broadway Debut

I ventured into the Big City today to see a play reading with the added possibility of taking in an evening performance of Next to Normal. I waited in the rush line for a long time and didn’t go anywhere – I was the 69th or 70th person there, so when my good friend Chris Lavin arrived, we decided to ditch that and go venturing about the city.

There aren’t too many Broadway shows that have a Sunday night performance. However, I recalled that one of the shows that was open for business was the smash hit revival of Hair at the Al Hirschfeld. So we left Theatre Row, where we saw the reading, and moved upward just in time for the rush lottery.

Time was on our side. We arrived just in time to be handed an entry slip, drop it in the hippie-ish bucket and go for a brief walk up 8th Avenue. We arrived back just as they commenced the drawing, and lo and behold on my first time ever participating in a show lottery, I was the third name drawn.

Things only got better as we settled into our box seats (I’d never sat there before – another in a series of firsts) drinking in the ’60s ambience, hearing the actors backstage in their final warm-up and the occasional sight and sound from onstage where the band is located, as the show curtain nonchalantly billowed. The energy from the audience was already amped, as the house was divided between children of my generation, and those children of the original production’s generation (many showing up proudly in their tie-dye t-shirts).

From the roar of the crowd at the dimming of the houselights to the curtain call, everything about this revival of Hair is spot-on. The cast, most of whom were involved in the previous incarnations in Central Park, is superb. Gavin Creel joins the crew for the Broadway engagement making for an ideal hero in Claude. Will Swenson is Berger, the unwielding, pleasure bound leader of the tribe who is something akin to a strung-out bunny rabbit. The two actors anchor the production with the roles originated by the shows creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado. The entire company works as a fluid, organic ensemble with so much of how they move and dance and interact with the audience appearing as though they were coming up with it on the spot. Bryce Ryness scores as Woof, who sings “Sodomy” and lusts for Mick Jagger. Megan Lawrence is a riot as Claude’s mother. Sassy beltress Saycon Sengbloh was on for Sasha Allen as Dionne tonight, and to give you an idea of just how good she was: the others didn’t realize she was the understudy until I told them after the fact, outside the theatre. A standout in the ensemble was the hilarious Andrew Kober as Claude’s conservative father and giving us his best Dame Edna meets Hyacinth Bucket as Margaret Mead.

The musical itself holds up remarkably well, in spite of a flimsy book. The score, one of the last musical theatre scores to really hold mainstream popularity, is as vibrant and rich as ever. Galt McDermott’s music and Rado & Ragni’s lyrics shock, titillate, unnerve and impact us in ways that seems surprising for a show that has been a staple for decades. However, even forty-two years removed from its initial off-Broadway incarnation, the show maintains uncompromising relevancy with the world in which we live. The hippie movement may have died out, but the underlying messages still hit the same chords. There are still cases of social injustice and unrest, unpopular wars, dissension at the establishment, etc. Kudos to director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage for breathing such exuberant life into a well-worn piece. They adapted their environmental staging for the proscenium and immediately shut up the naysayers who felt this production wouldn’t work inside. The actors climbed all over the audience and up into the mezzanine, there’s something electric seeing the cast bounding around the house engaging the entire audience. This production works, and how.

Many subsequent musicals have tried to follow the same formula, but there is none that quite reaches the heights of this particular show. Hair today is more relevant than Spring Awakening could ever hope to be.

This production of Hair also offers one of the rarest of opportunities for avid theatregoers: after the curtain call, the audience is invited to join the cast onstage to sing and dance the reprises of “Hair” and “Let the Sunshine In” in a glorious 5-10 minute dance party. It must be said here, that I am not the type to actively participate, and usually slink around like a wallflower. In fact, I usually need to be drunk in order to work up the nerve to do something like this. However, sitting up in my box seat and completely in the moment, I saw our friend and fellow blogger Esther onstage (Chris Caggiano was also in the house tonight!) and immediately seized the opportunity to grab my friend and head down and up onto the stage at the Al Hirschfeld, where we completely rocked out.

There we are, a hundred or so of us audience members and the entire cast. The three of us are dancing up a frenetic, intoxicating storm surrounded by total strangers and one of the brightest ensembles in NY. The stage is searing under the oppressive heat of the lighting. The rock band (so marvelously led by Nadia Digiallonardo) was pulsating through us as we moved. We came together as a community of one, but each one of us in that moment was the center of the universe. Such life-affirming vibrancy comes only so often in a person’s life.

All in all, this revival is exhilarating. Invigorating. Rousing. Infectious. Transcendent. Cathartic. And fill in any other superlative you can think of. Hair is back on Broadway and better than ever. I want to go back as soon as I’m able (I think I know how I want to spend my birthday this year…)

I’ll always remember tonight as one of the best of my entire life. I hope your experience at the show is the same.