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Decades have deflated ‘Hair’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Decades have deflated ‘Hair’
The cast of “Hair.” PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

When the tribal rock musical “Hair” debuted in 1968, it sent shock waves through the theater community. The political defiance, interracial cast and fully nude scene were all strikingly new in the theater world. When “Hair” played at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston in 1970, the production company was prosecuted for “lewd and lascivious acts.” Now, a half-century later, New Repertory Theatre is reviving the production, on stage through Feb. 23.

The themes of young people searching for meaning and revolting against the establishment are eternally relevant, but the shocking twists that made “Hair” engaging in its debut now seem outdated in a more avant-garde theater world. Out of its 60s and 70s context, the musical’s aimless, drug-addled characters are less profound, as is the loose plot that they follow. Though there are some strong melodies beefing up the show (the music is by Galt MacDermot), they stand alongside a large number of filler songs.

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That’s not for lack of talent on the part of the New Repertory Theatre cast. They come at the production with an incredible amount of energy, exuberance and vocal and dance talent. The production also continues to provide opportunities for black actors to shine. Anthony Pires Jr. playing Hud and Kris Ivy Hayes playing Crissy are especially powerful, and the songs the characters of color sing about marginalization are still staunchly relevant.

Still too, the anti-war sentiment holds up, particularly after recent developments with the United States and Iran. The young cast perfectly plays the vulnerability of their positions. They talk a big game about screwing the establishment, but the fear of being shot down overseas casts a shadow over their confidence.

Among the elements that no longer hold up in the contemporary era is the protagonist, Claude. Claude is dodging the draft and fears for his life, which is a legitimate concern, and his drug-induced nightmares about Vietnam still hold significant power. But his tension with his suburban parents reeks of privilege next to the discrimination faced by the characters of color and the lack of resources faced by the female characters. Claude has chosen the life of the outcast, but he could change his mind at any moment and go back to a life of relative comfort and continued privilege.

New Repertory Theatre executes their production of “Hair” skillfully, and it effectively continues new artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt’s work of bringing more diverse voices to the stage. Unfortunately, the show itself has lost much of its power in a contemporary context, and the groovy hairstyles it’s named after aren’t enough to incite fervor in the audience.