The Age of Aquarius returned to the West End last night (14 April 2010), with the transfer of the Public Theater’s Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Hair to the Gielgud Theatre.
The production marks the first time that an entire Broadway cast - which includes Gavin Creel (previously seen in the West End as Bert in Mary Poppins) as Claude, Caissie Levy as Sheila and Will Swenson as Berger - has opened a musical in the West End (See News, 16 Nov 2009).
In late 1960s New York City, Claude falls in with a group of hippies called the Tribe, led by Berger. But their free love and drug-enhanced happiness is disrupted by Claude’s Vietnam draft orders. Hair has book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot. The score includes “Aquarius”, “Ain’t Got No”, “I Got Life”, “Good Morning Starshine”, \"Let the Sun Shine In\" and the title song.
This production, directed by Diane Paulus, was first seen in September 2007 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where its run was extended three times before it transferred to Broadway’s Al Hirschfield Theatre, where it won a Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. Hair has scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Michael McDonald, lighting design by Michael Chybowski, sound design by Acme Sound Partners and choreography by Karole Armitage.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “A wonderfully witty match of production and venue … It’s a great virtue of Diane Paulus’ totally engaging Public Theater production that the innocence and unbridled high spirits of the tribe are not tainted with cynicism or even silliness. The show is for real, but also locked in its period and aware of its own theatrical playfulness … Galt MacDermot’s score is both sensationally well sung and brilliantly played by the onstage band under Richard Beadle’s musical direction … The first great rock musical turns out to be a one-off masterpiece in its deployment of blues, jazz, bass rhythms, brass riffs and flat out melodic anthems, paving the way, no doubt, for Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar but absolutely on its own as a lexicon of the jargon, taboos and post-war high school rebellion that shaped and stamped a whole generation … Gavin Creel is a charming and sympathetic Claude … His artfulness with the number is matched by Allison Case’s beautiful delivery.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) –“More than 40 years since its premiere, this greatest of all rock musicals can still inspire violent antipathy among the straitlaced. That strikes me as being one of its strengths … For old hippies like me, the show offers two and a half hours of theatrical bliss … The verve and energy of the company, who frequently make forays into the audience, ruffling the spectators’ hair and kissing them on the cheek, is irresistible, the vitality of Karole Armitage’s turbo-charged and often highly erotic choreography genuinely thrilling. Diane Paulus’ production brilliantly succeeds in letting the audience imagine it is present at a Sixties happening where sex and drugs and rock and roll (not to mention full-frontal nudity) combine to create a world of bleary bonhomie, naive idealism and political radicalism … Caissie Levy is tender and touching as the girlfriend he treats so cruelly, Gavin Creel deeply moving as the confused Claude. But this is essentially an ensemble show in which the whole company shines, while also suggesting the dark shadows of the hippie dream.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Hair is more than just a musical: it is a social and cultural phenomenon ... The great thing about Diane Paulus\' revival, which imports an entire Broadway company to London, is that it sees the show in two ways. It recognises that Hair was a product of its time, yet it also presents it as a vibrant, joyous piece of living theatre … It recaptures the carnivalesque optimism of the 60s, and it does this in several ways. Partly by breaking down the barrier between stage and auditorium: never before have I had my hair mussed, in one evening, by so many touchy-feely actors. Without attempting to emulate the pyrotechnic, strobe-lit dazzle of Tom O\'Horgan\'s original production, Paulus also makes this a genuinely tribal show in which the spirit of the ensemble is greater than any individual … Hair is part of all our yesterdays. But it is here given exultant new life by Paulus\' production. I can only salute the cascading energy of her cast led by Gavin Creel as Claude, Caissie Levy as the demonstrating Sheila, Will Swenson as the shaggily stoned, self-consciously hammy Berger and Sasha Allen as the brass-lunged Dionne. Karole Armitage\'s choreography also keeps the joint jumping and Scott Pask\'s design ironically enthrones the excellent band in a vast military truck.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “It’s exhilarating, as well as oddly poignant … this is a production whose unstoppable energy and ebullient choreography more than compensate for what could, I suppose, still be considered flaws. Hair takes glee in rambling dialogue, formlessness, intellectual sloppiness and an absence of rhyme … Up to the interval and the famous nude scene, it’s touchingly optimistic. Then it darkens … Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book might often have been improvised by stoned beatniks, but Galt MacDermot’s songs, with their tributes to sodomy, onanism and (weirdly) \'Manchester, England\', still zing. And, boy, can these performers sing. It doesn’t wholly matter that the show needs a less traditional playhouse than the Gielgud when they celebrate freedom by sprawling into the aisles and the stalls. They do something better. They raise the old theatre’s roof.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “The first 40 minutes are almost entirely unexplained - it\'s just one high-pulse introductory solo after another - and the second half suffers a long, heinously dull hallucination scene … The American performers are good-looking and plainly love every moment of the show. Only the most reactionary grump could fail to applaud their professionalism … And yet by the end the fraudulence of the gaiety becomes sickening. There is a lack of truthfulness in Hair which may not have been apparent when it was first performed in New York city in 1967 but which, today, is unavoidable … When you consider that the draft-dodgers included later warmongers such as Bill Clinton and George W Bush, it doesn\'t do much for the brand … And yet here, albeit with great gusto, albeit to shrieking acclaim, such creeps are being romanticised as enlightened and somehow brave … Despite the admirable production values, that stinks.”
Claire Allfree in Metro (four stars) - \"You can knock holes in Hair from 50 paces. It has almost no plot, there are more forgettable songs ... than standouts and its hippy dippy, anti-Vietnam vibe belongs to a long-vanished era of dropout radicalism and youthful idealism. Yet it\'s also hard to imagine how Diane Paulus\' psychedelic Broadway revival could be better ... Paulus\' emotionally literate, loose-limbed production soars on the back of several exceptional talents - from \"Age of Aquarius\" singer Sasha Allen to Darius Nichols\' slick soul boy Hud ... Paulus captures the generous spirit of the play without either turning it into a period piece or ridiculing its free love sentiments. It\'s indulgent and blurry at times but it also feels like one big, joyful embrace.\"