Review: Hair Still Speaks to the Times in an Outstanding New Production

The iconic ’60s musical is now running at New Jersey’s Two River Theater.

The company of Hair, directed by James Vásquez, at Two River Theater.
(© T Charles Erickson)

Legend holds that when Hair debuted at the Cheetah Nightclub in 1967, the actors sometimes wore their own clothes onstage. It’s hard to imagine any of the performers in the current revival at Two River Theater showing up to work in the hippie garb they flaunt so spectacularly throughout the production. Such is the journey of a musical from an essential representation of the time in which it was created to a period piece that depicts a long-abandoned moment in culture.

Yes, the love beads, floral crowns, and makeshift loincloths of David Israel Reynoso’s costume design signify that the work belongs to a bygone era. Yet little else in Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni’s “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” shows a perceptible sign of age. The themes at the show’s heart still resonate 56 years later, from the scourge of chemical pollution to the desire for sexual freedom. The injustice of war remains perennially relevant. And while the production at Two River — which comes to New Jersey via the Old Globe in San Diego, under the direction of James Vásquez — does nothing to self-consciously update the story, it connects easily with a contemporary audience.

Jordan Dobson plays Claude, and Andrew Polec plays Berger in Hair at Two River Theater.
(© T Charles Erickson)

The stalwart score deserves the lion’s share of credit. In terms of mid-century musicals, few are as well-stacked with memorable melodies and quirky lyrics. Because the story unfolds in a largely non-narrative fashion, the music does well to delineate character and place, with songs like “Easy to Be Hard,” “Frank Mills,” “Going Down,” and “I Got Life” offering snapshots of individual people and a macro-culture. Explorations of queerness (“Sodomy”) and racism (“Colored Spade”) still shock and sting for their frankness. And hits like “Good Morning Starshine” and “Aquarius” retain their infectious qualities — especially the latter, rousingly sung here by Janelle McDermoth.

Under Noah Teplin’s musical direction, the Two River company perform the score at an extremely high level. The tight harmonies of “Walking in Space” and “What a Piece of Work Is Man” stand out amid the rock-tinged sound world, serving the dramaturgical purpose of previewing the horrific experiences that hero Claude (Jordan Dobson) will eventually face upon deployment to Vietnam during a bad acid trip. The actors move freely about the auditorium, and to hear them sing so sweetly just inches from you allows a listener to truly appreciate the show’s quieter, more delicate moments. But when the company lets loose — as they do in their stirring rendition of “The Flesh Failures,” a great protest song — they make the full power of the material felt.

The company of Hair, directed by James Vásquez, at Two River Theater.
(© T Charles Erickson)

Director Vásquez constructs a tribe with virtually no weak links. Dobson conveys Claude’s conflicted idealism and ultimate innocence. Andrew Polec’s Berger captures the wild spirit of the era, even if he occasionally gooses up the role’s comedy. Olivia Puckett’s Sheila is a hippie chick par excellence. Angel Sigala sings sweetly as the sexually porous Woof, and Olivia Oguma steals scenes as the pregnant, pining Jeanie. The entire company executes Mayte Natalio’s groovy choreography with freewheeling verve.

Some elements of Tim Mackabee’s set design don’t make complete sense. (Why is there a barbed-wire fence surrounding the backwall of the stage? Are the characters subliminally in prison?) And the famous nude scene that closes the first act is handled so tastefully here that it comes across as superfluous rather than subversive. Perhaps that’s a sign of the changing times — what once seemed shocking is now thoroughly passé. But Hair itself continues to ignite passions and stir emotional currents in those who encounter it. Six decades on, it still speaks to the hope of a better, freer world.

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Closed: October 22, 2023