New Line Theatre's production of Hair, which opened last weekend in the A.E. Hotchner Drama Studio on the Washington University campus, may pull you into a gallop down memory lane (if you're older) or (if you're younger) may cause an attack of envy because your parents lived in much more interesting times than you do.
Whatever the effect, a strong, musical cast make the book, music and lyrics seem as fresh and fun as they were in 1968. And though a few of the songs are pretty maudlin, they pass quickly and something better turns up fast.
It's hard to remember that Hair coincided with LBJ and Richard Nixon's first term in office -- times that, like the folksong says, tried the soul. It's astonishing to sit in the audience and see how respectably Hair evokes the Movement -- civil rights, peace, women's, gay -- that sprang from the same disgust and impatience with the stifling conformity that kept the military-industrial complex, General Motors and the establishment on everyone's backs. And yes indeed, although a very few grownups had been struggling with these problems ever since the end of World War II, the kids -- primarily sons and daughters of the white middle class -- learned a lesson from the black activists and became war resisters. Heady stuff! And along with all this came revolutions in pop music, sexual morality, notions of propriety -- Jericho's walls came tumbling down.
Hair is a clever piece of musical theater. Rock musicians didn't write the music and lyrics, but rock groups covered Hair's songs. It is probably the last Broadway show whose tunes became popular, and not just one or two, either: Pop artists and groups sang "Aquarius," "Hair," "Easy to Be Hard," "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sunshine In." This was not happenstance -- the songs were meant to please the ears of parents, not those of their offspring, and the show itself presented hippie culture as both something charming and cute as well as something meaningful. In the very nicest sort of way, Hair is a ripoff, using the freaks' street culture as a way into the hearts and minds of Broadway showgoers.
John Sparger, who's a demon, and Ken Haller give forceful lead performances, well supported by Beck Hunter, Nicole Trueman and John Rhine. Robin Kelso sings "Frank Mills," a funny, sad, silly and touching 14-year-old's liebeslied, with exactly the sincerity the song demands. Everyone who aspires to be a real female impersonator needs to witness Bradley Calise's singing of "My Conviction" and hear strong and convincing falsetto. Scott Miller, who has the stage action and pace well in hand, also leads the keyboards, electric strings and drums of an excellent combo.
For those who need to know in advance, New Line keeps the full-frontal nudity Hair has always been famous for but does it so tastefully that you can scarcely see it -- just like the Broadway original back in 1968.
Hair continues through July 1.