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Of the many egregious acts perpetrated on the American public by the advertising and marketing industry the worst may be this: ”Let the Sun Shine In” is not a jingle.
In fact, of all the songs from the musical Hair – now onstage at the Kennedy Center – it is perhaps the least jingle-worthy of all. (Though odds are good that the FCC would not be keen on the advertisement of any product that used ”Black Boys” or ”White Boys” to rouse consumer attention.)
”Let the Sun Shine In” is instead the culmination of a brilliant musical that is equal parts revival and outright rave. If one were to set aside the show’s place in the history of musical theater there would be something almost comical about its mounting (often literally) in the red velvet box that is the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
That’s not to perpetuate the false mythology that pegs the Kennedy Center as some stuffy, hot house filled with opera singers in horned Viking helmets and ballerinas forever pirouetting their way through another production of the Nutcracker. But, truly, one has not experienced an evening at this most famous of performance halls until you have done so with a largely undressed man in a fringed buckskin thong crawling his way over the heads of audience members.
Which is all part of the spontaneous vitality that makes the touring production of Hair so energizing and fresh and young. There is no line between audience and cast, no hesitation in answering questions whose answers are so blindingly obvious. Hair doesn’t ask you to consider its point of view, there is no gray here – only black and white, right and wrong.
It’s striking that this ”American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” originally produced in 1967, should feel more alive than shows not nearing their golden anniversary, and shocking that the protest signs held aloft by various members of the show’s Tribe still ring so true that they could be easily marched out the front doors of the theater and to the National Mall. Demands for world peace and environmental responsibility and unity.
At the most basic of levels, Hair rebels against the traditional structure of the musical (one of many groundbreaking elements that makes it the grandfather of rock musicals like Rent, Spring Awakening and Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson), opening in a fashion that is more like a review than the beginning of a story. We are welcomed not with exposition or even a sense of place, but with an invitation to join the Tribe, a collection of flower children bonded together by all manner of physical and emotional passions.
As the musical builds – introducing the various characters through a rich trove of songs like ”Aquarius,” ”Manchester, England,” and ”Sodomy” – the narrative subtly begins to piece its way together.
Claude (Paris Remillard) has gotten his draft notice and his friends Berger (Steel Burkhardt), Sheila (Caren Lyn Tackett), Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), Hud (Darius Nichols), Dionne (Phyre Hawkins) and Woof (Matt DeAngelis) are determined he not end up in Vietnam.
The guys, along with the other male members of the Tribe, will burn their draft cards and refuse to go. The entire Tribe will go to the induction center and cast positive energy at the building and those inside. They will howl and yip and demand peace as vigorously as those in charge bark military orders to maim and kill.
Hair‘s touring company is led by a phenomenally talented collection of actors. Burkhardt is perfectly cast as the sexy, mercurial Berger. As likely to charm a woman in the front row with his long dark hair and easy smile as to flirt with the man sitting next to her, Berger is the unofficial leader of the leaderless Tribe. He’s the man who they all want to be. Or do. Or both.
Burkhardt infuses the character with an undeniable magnetism, an effect heightened through his clear onstage connection with Remillard’s Claude. The characters Claude and Berger are engaged in a mutual and uninhibited triangular relationship with Sheila. The two men love one another, and Remillard and Burkhardt communicate that intimacy in an entirely casual and naturalistic manner. They have developed something powerful that brings an even greater depth to the story, moving the audience to even greater investment in the pair.
No one could ask for a better opening to this production, with Hawkins bell-clear and bottomless voice declaring, ”When the moon is in the seventh house….” She is one of several powerful singers in the production, including Tackett (whose instrument comes upon you like the greatest surprise) and Sheik. Sheik’s performance of ”Air” manages to be simultaneously inspiring and utterly depressing. Though any disappointment is only for the truth and persistence of the song’s content and not its performance.
Aquarius is indeed rising at the Kennedy Center, with a Tribe of performers who will shock some, amaze others and enthrall the rest. The national touring production of Hair truly shines.