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Diane Paulus directs a crowd-pleasing and remarkably satisfying production of the 1967 anti-war musical in its ideal setting: Central Park's Delacorte Theatre.

Ato Blankson-Wood, Will Swenson, Jonathan Groff,
and Bryce Ryness in Hair
(© Michal Daniel)
Contrary to the popular saying, timing isn't actually everything. There's little question that the quintessential anti-war musical Hair retains its political relevance as America finds itself once more in the midst of a divisive war. But tackling this often tricky, often joyous, and occasionally heartbreaking piece of theater four decades after its Off-Broadway debut comes complete with an obstacle course of directorial challenges. Fortunately, Diane Paulus overcomes the hurdles in her crowd-pleasing and remarkably satisfying Shakespeare in the Park production at the Delacorte Theatre.

One of Hair's greatest challenges is to not make Gerome Ragni and James Rado's book play like a disconnected series of vignettes. While not completely downplaying the sketch-like nature of the work -- at times, even brilliantly embracing it -- Paulus nevertheless effectively creates a dramatic through-line, keeping the primary focus on whether middle-class-kid-cum-hippie Claude (Jonathan Groff) will find a way to avoid being shipped to Vietnam.

It's an action urged upon him by "the Tribe" -- especially best friends and sometime paramours Berger (Will Swenson) and Sheila (Caren Lyn Manuel) -- with whom he spends his days and nights in a frenzy of free love, drugs, and the occasional tourist-scaring. But the Tribe's attempts to escape the reality of their situation never fully succeed. 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 for those keeping track, the famed nude scene -- which follows a few minutes later -- does exist, with the cast showing no embarrassment.) And the final tableau, no matter how foreshadowed, still packs a devastating punch.

The second and perhaps even greater challenge of presenting Hair in 2008 lies in not having the actors (none of whom were born in 1967) appear like a bunch of kids playing dress-up. Luckily, Paulus has carefully chosen a cast who throw themselves into the material with complete conviction. Groff may strike some as not quite "period" enough, but he makes maximum use of his powerful voice and acting chops -- especially on "I Got Life." As Berger, Swenson has sexiness and charisma to spare. Manuel -- while not quite as effective as Karen Olivo, who played Sheila in last summer's concert staging -- does pretty well by the role. (Her primary job is to sing the hell out of the show's big ballad "Easy To Be Hard," and she has the vocal chops.)

Of the large supporting cast, the standouts include the big-voiced Patina Renea Miller as Dionne (who belts out that amazing opening passage of "Aquarius" and guides a shimmering "White Boys"), the absolutely adorable Kacie Sheik as Jeannie, the pregnant pothead in love with Claude, and the superb Darius Nichols as the slightly scary Hud, as well as Bryce Ryness as the sexually confused, Mick Jagger-loving Woof, Saycon Sengbloh as a sassy Abraham Lincoln, and Megan Lawrence as Claude's shrill mother.

While there is something to be said for a Broadway transfer of the production, the Delacorte is the ideal setting for the show. Most of the action is confined to a grass-covered semi-circle (designed by Tony Award winner Scott Pask), but the actors often move freely in and out of the audience. Karole Armitage's choreography, while not all that innovative, is also well suited to the space. (That said, it is perhaps less memorable than the exaggerated movement Twyla Tharp created for Milos Forman's 1979 film version). And the onstage band plays with verve.

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. Dancing in the streets may not be acceptable in the Big Apple 2008, but it's positively groovy at the Delacorte.