Aquarius Reawakened: “Hair” at the Kennedy Center

Remember those old, tinted granny glasses worn by hippies in the sixties, along with their bellbottoms, fringed jackets, tie-dyed blouses and long hair or afros? You don’t?

That will help. Or not.

Context isn’t everything when you go see the touring company of the hit revival of “Hair,” as it makes its first stop at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, but it plays a part as to how the show will affect you.

“Hair,” the revolutionary Broadway musical which exploded like a powerful, bracing dose of a very new kind of cultural aftershave in 1968—a year when the world spun on its axis—will seem different to audience members who were in their twenties in the sixties, or who just turned 21 last week and celebrated with a Facebook announcement.

It’s strange watching “Hair,” which is so much of its own time in the here and now. It’s the Age of Aquarius, touching down in Washington days before what liberal spirits see as the beginning of the Age of Armageddon.

The sheer energy of the cast, a kind of boisterous insistence that what they feel, do and think matters like nothing else in the universe, makes this production of “Hair,” which was revived on Broadway with major success last year, an overwhelming experience no matter who you are.

Its been over forty years, but this bunch looks at times as if they just jumped off a particularly gaudy spaceship, spreading joy, free love, reefers, two-fingered peace and love and other goodies. This way the show seems almost new, as if shot out of a cannon.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’re likely to get a contact high, a strong rush of memory. If you’re not…well, it will bowl you over anyway, with its sheer physicality, its loud pop music that really
pops, strung with aching guitar riffs and the faint odor of pot and pop, so familiar are some of the tunes.

You’ll also admire the winning ways of the big cast—each and every single one of them. As in the past, the cast often swarms over the audience like bees, rushing out, chit-chatting, whispering,
jumping, singing, standing on seats, waving flags, whispering in your ears, rushing down the aisles. They’re like gonzo pied pipers.

“Hair” was shocking and political for its time, a non-stop entertainment train that pulled you along or got in your face. For every power ballad like “Easy to Be Hard,” or sweet optimistic song like “Good Morning Star Shine,” or surging anthem like “Aquarius,” there are the recitation songs about the sufferings of the environment (“Welcome, Carbon Monoxide”) or the recitation of every sexual act known to man, woman or anyone else. There are still the queasy hundred or so words that get substituted for African American, most of which were not in use until then.

There’s a thin plot, involving the sweet Claude who’s become draft eligible to be cannon fodder for Viet Nam. Mostly there’s characters: the exuberantly charismatic Berger; Claude, who has left his Staten Island home and pretends to be from Manchester, England; the torn Sheila who loves the commitment-shy Berger; the very gay Woof who insists he’s not; the very pregnant Jeanie, who doesn’t know who the father is.

They’re all part of the tribe: free and freedom loving hippies of the kind that enthralled and appalled America for part of the late 1960s—especially in 1968, the year of assassinations, war, political and cultural upheaval in extremis.

The “Hair” tribe hangs out in various open spaces in New York. They demonstrate at the draft office, burn their draft cards, exult in hair, and levitate on love and peace.

Dominating the cast is Steel Burkhart as the overpowering Berger who reeks of charisma—a guy whose preferred drug has to be speed, because he’s barely ever still. He’s a sack of hugs and hands on others and himself. He’s the anarchistic spirit of the tribe. Paris Remillard’s Claude, with a little help from the eternally optimistic Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), is the tribe’s most cherished innocent soul. And Sheila, played by the soulful Caren Lynn Tackett, is the tribe’s conscience.

But really, it’s the collective whole that counts. They come running. A blue-jeaned, butterfly-tattooed blonde girl shaking her long hair. Hud and his black compatriots prouding their Afros. The music overwhelming with the exuberant “Hair,” or “Let the Sun Shine In.” Berger crowing “I’ve Got Life” (and then some). The Tribe stripping demurely to the barely nude. They seem at turns like last Friday or a group from a galaxy far far away, revisiting. What a trip. And worth the trip.

“Hair” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through November 21.

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