Friday, July 10, 2009


Now that the fanfare surrounding this year's TONY Awards has cooled, I finally have time to post my thoughts on the winner for best revival of a musical, Hair. This production has special significance to us Bostonians as it marks the Broadway debut for director Diane Paulus, rising artistic director for the local American Repertory Theater. Having made her name for conceiving and directing The Donkey Show, a 70s-era disco version of Midsummer Night's Dream, Paulus seems the most likely candidate to direct this much-anticipated Broadway revival. Therefore, Publick Theatre artistic director Oscar Eustus certainly deserves some credit for perfectly matching the artist to the art (however, why he was the only one to give an acceptance speech at the TONY's ceremony baffled me). With all of the hullabaloo surrounding Hair's path to Broadway, I guess my expectations were a little too high. The show is interesting and well-done, but lacks the spark of inspiration and innovation that usually marks a major Broadway revival (think Chicago, Cabaret, or Sweeney Todd). Ms. Paulus' revival plays more like a well-preserved museum piece dusted off and displayed for nostalgia and fun.

The first impression of the show was how great the music truly is. Whether this is a result of how bad the book truly is or my own nostalgia of listening to the cast album over and over again during my own angsty college years is anyone's guess. However, as the lights dimmed in the final "Let the Sun Shine In," the audience was standing and swaying and singing along much like over-aged Jonas Brothers fans. I hoped the finale-remix popularized by the Joseph... revival and exploited by Mamma Mia had faded with the mega-musicals of Cameron MacIntosh. Apparently, I hoped too soon as Hair, not only ends with an audience sing-along, but an onstage dance party. Only on Broadway can you pay $160 for a ticket to perform for yourself. I could have paid a $10 cover charge for 80s night at a local club and had the same sense of "Gee, I'm old, but it sure feels great to dance to this music again." But, I'm harping on the last twenty minutes of the show and, to be fair, there was another hour and fifty minutes of entertainment to skewer.

The New York critics were so enamored by the revival mostly due to the young and talented cast. Seeing the show in previews, I found the young cast to be tired - voices were husky and straining, some of the actors seemed to be going through the motions. I guess I'm partly jaded living in a regional city that exports its young talent to the concrete jungle of New York. I'm not impressed by young talent because I'm surrounded by it. I guess New York critics are oppositely jaded with well-honed, seasoned actors. The only exception to this rule for me was Andrew Kober's show-stealing comedy as a one-man ensemble of assorted characters such as the 1960s Dad, Margaret Meade, et al. His comedic turn was the type of Broadway debut that signals the rise of a major star.

Ms. Paulus was a history major at Harvard University, which accounts for her well-documented restaging of the play. Indeed, many of the original reviews that I've read about the show were fulfilled on cue: see the tribe members rush into the audience, see tribe members confetti the audience with flowers, etc. However, Paulus demonstrates her directing prowess in the second act when, historicism aside, she is allowed to play within the dramatic device of an acid trip - think of it as the 1960s response to the dream ballet. During this exciting interlude, the social and cultural upheavals that have become synonymous with "the sixties" are spoofed, minstrelled, and musicalized and Paulus' intellectual direction does not let one social commentary slip. The other aspect of innovation for which Paulus should be applauded is her contemporary scrutiny of sexual relations that is tested in the original, but fully explored in Paulus' daring reconceptualization of the sexual dynamics of characters. The sexual identity and relationship of Berger and Claude is obfuscated to the point of being uncategorizable, a notion that is only possible in the post-sexual politics of queer identity. I have much respect for Ms. Paulus as a theatre artist for I feel she is undaunted to challenge form and content. Likewise, I feel that her conceptualization of this revival is intended as an homage to the original, served with reverence and precision. I only hope that the many accolades lauded on this work will inspire her to break even further from convention and return to her roots of reconfiguring, reconceptualizing, and rechallenging the artistic form so that she may create the next musical that defines a generation.

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