Diane Paulus’ surehanded staging of the 1967 antiwar musical, both joyous and heartbreaking, makes this show the year’s best Broadway musical revival.

Gavin Creel and Will Swenson in Hair
(© Joan Marcus)
Gavin Creel and Will Swenson in Hair
(© Joan Marcus)

There’s little question that the quintessential “make love not war” musical Hair, now at Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theatre, can come off as little more than a faded period piece four decades after it rocked the theater world. But in the remarkably sure hands of director Diane Paulus and a committed cast of young Broadway talent, the landmark 1967 work not only retains its political and social relevance, but remains a remarkably joyous and occasionally heartbreaking piece of theater. The result is the year’s best Broadway musical revival.

True, audience members who saw Paulus’ previous staging of the work in Central Park — in both 2007 and 2008 — may not be fully satisfied by the change to a more traditional venue. Despite making great use of the Hirschfeld’s vast stage — through Scott Pask’s minimal set — and having the cast repeatedly come into various sections of the theater (perhaps rather too excessively), the presentational style does not feel quite as organic as the Delacorte Theater staging. One compensation, however, is Kevin Adams’ superlative lighting design, which heightens some of the show’s most important moments. And Karole Armitage’s kinetic choreography, which cleverly incorporates some of the dance movement of the 1960s, has definitely been sharpened to excellent effect.

Most important, though, Paulus has conquered Hair‘s greatest challenge — which is to not make Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book seem like just a disconnected series of vignettes. While retaining some of their vaudevillian feel, once we’re introduced to middle-class-kid-cum-hippie Claude (the pleasing, strong-voiced Gavin Creel), Paulus also effectively creates a dramatic through-line by keeping the primary focus on whether he will find a way to avoid being shipped to Vietnam. It’s an action urged upon him by his cohorts, “the Tribe” — and especially best friends and sometime paramours Berger (the impossibly charismatic Will Swenson) and Sheila (a nicely passionate Caissie Levy) — 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.

Sadly, the Tribe’s attempts to escape the reality of their situation solder 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” — an act of subversiveness the current generation probably can’t imagine — is positively chilling. And the final tableau, no matter how foreshadowed, still packs a devastating punch.

Of course, the real beauty of Hair is in its marvelous score, in which composer Galt MacDermot travels through a dizzying array of musical styles, and which features lyrics of remarkable wit, elan, and even profundity. (Indeed, one whole song uses the verse of William Shakespeare). Creel is at his best as he proudly proclaims “I Got Life,” Swenson brings intense feeling to everything he sings — most notably, the title tune — and Levy does quite well both with the show’s big ballad “Easy To Be Hard,” and the infectious “Good Morning Starshine.” (As an added bonus, Creel manages to display great sexual and romantic chemistry with Levy and especially Swenson, making their “triangle” quite potent, even if all three actors are arguably too old for their roles.)

In addition to Creel and Levy, who joined the show for this Broadway run, the other cast replacement from Paulus’ previous stagings is the big-voiced Sasha Allen as Dionne. While she occasionally seems as if she stepped out of an MTV video rather than the 1960s, her forceful presence and voice are both mesmerizing. (Just watch her as she belts out that amazing opening passage of “Aquarius” and unleashes a fierce “White Boys.”) Other standout players include the absolutely adorable Kacie Sheik as Jeannie, the pregnant pothead in love with Claude, the superb Darius Nichols as the slightly scary Hud, Bryce Ryness as the sweet, sexually confused Woof, Saycon Sengbloh as a sassy Abraham Lincoln, Megan Lawrence as Claude’s shrill mother, and Andrew Kober, who is equally effective as Claude’s stern father and the free-thinking “Margaret Mead.”

In the end, though, nothing captures Paulus’ sharp understanding of the material quite as succinctly as her double-handed approach to the show’s finale, “Let the Sunshine In.” It ends the actual show as a heart-rending plea for light amidst the darkness; but after the curtain call, it’s reprised as a singalong and dancealong of sheer ecstasy in which the audience is encouraged to participate. So go ahead — let down your hair and give into the charms of Hair!

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