A scene from Hair
(© Joan Marcus)
A scene from Hair
(© Joan Marcus)
Even on my fifth viewing, Diane Paulus' extraordinary handling of Hair, the landmark 1967 musical, now playing at the St. James Theatre, impresses. Her thoughtful staging simultaneously retains its political and social relevance, while remaining an ultimately heartbreaking yet joyful piece of theater. And once again, a extremely talented "tribe" of performers -- some admittedly better cast than others -- are bringing this always-welcome show to life.

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.