True, Paulus has been blessed with one of the theater's greatest scores, by Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado, and it still sounds as fresh as a proverbial daisy. Her triumph, however, has been in transforming Rado and Ragni's book so that it feels like much more than just a disconnected series of vignettes. After the first few numbers, which introduce the characters, she effectively creates a dramatic through-line by keeping the primary focus on whether middle-class-kid-turned-hippie Claude (Paris Remillard) will find a way to avoid being shipped to Vietnam.
It's an action urged upon him by his best friends and sometime paramours, high-school dropout Berger (Steel Burkhardt) and college student and fervent activist Sheila (Caryn Lyn Tackett), with whom he spends his days and nights in a frenzy of free love, drugs, the occasional tourist-scaring, and one distinct display of full-frontal nudity. (There can be a bit of audience scaring as well, as the players frequently interact with the patrons, whether they like it or not.)
Remillard precisely captures Claude's essential sweetness and innocence -- he's clearly a bird of a different feather than his disillusioned tribemates; and his voice is extremely well-suited to the score, notably the plaintive "Where Do I Go." He also exhibits a true sense of camaraderie with Burkhardt, with just a hint of sexual chemistry.
While Burkhardt is appealing, he is just a tad shy on the show-stopping charisma needed to fully embody Berger. (And like many of his predecessors, he looks far older than your average high school student.) Tackett has impressive pipes, but she's a rather bland Sheila, and fails to raise the proverbial roof on "Easy to Be Hard." Phyre Hawkins is a suitably strong-throated Dionne, bringing verve to "Aquarius," and "White Boys," and Matt DeAngelis brings a truly genuine gentleness to Woof.
But the strongest supporting contributions come from the show's long-time cast members, Darius Nichols has presence to spare as the slightly militant Hud; Kacie Sheik gives a remarkably full-bodied and fully-thought-out performance as the ever-optimistic Jeannie; and Josh Lamon practically steals the show as the free-thinking "Margaret Mead" (and doubles effectively as Claude's stern father).
Sadly, in the end, the attempts of these drug-addled dreamers to escape the reality of their situation never fully succeed, despite their frantic attempts at turning on and tuning out. Indeed, the almost-end-of-Act I moment when the male members of the group burn their draft cards as part of a "Be-In" is positively chilling, knowing the potential consequences of such a subversive and illegal action, and the final tableau, no matter how foreshadowed, still packs a devastating punch.
That Paulus nonetheless allows us to leave the theater on our own high, with a free-for-all dance party as a cleverly added post-script, is just one more brilliant touch in this must-see production.