Astrologers disagree about when the Age of Aquarius began, or will begin; some say we must wait another 300 years for this new and better era to start. But the characters in the 1968 musical “Hair,” which is getting an inventive and charming revival in an outdoor setting at Serenbe Playhouse through August 18, have no such doubts or disagreements. With their very first words, they inform us in rousing song that we are all right smack at the dawn of it.
“Hair” is a reliable compendium of genuinely appealing pop and rock songs, though they’re all just sort of loosely connected to what you might call characters stumbling through what could perhaps pass for a plot. One of the musical’s best ballads, the lovely and moving “Easy to Be Hard,” gets a fantastic rendition here, but I was surprised to rediscover that it’s seemingly being sung in response to a torn shirt. Well, whatever. “Hair” has always sought to combine the best elements of hanging out and putting on a show.
There’s nudity and drug use, and though the original creators clearly strained, at times condescendingly, to capture “youth culture” and speak to “the kids,” some of the political humor — as when black characters mock stereotypes or point out the racism of the Vietnam War — still has a smart, edgy bite.
At the time, of course, the show wasn’t trying to depict some nostalgic past but to describe people and events happening right outside the theater. It was once believed that the success of “Hair” would usher in a new era of Broadway musicals: political, current, edgy, plain-spoken, with a more contemporary hard-rock sound (several of “Hair’s” songs were certifiable hits, something Broadway hadn’t seen for a while). But this turned out not to be the case. Nonetheless, the show has remained a worldwide success, though it’s become more of a time capsule than anything else.
The revival at Serenbe, about 45 minutes southwest of downtown Atlanta, seems to begin the moment you pull into the parking lot. Down a dirt road, visitors park in a field as if approaching a Woodstock-like outdoor music festival: there are tents, a psychedelic school bus for a ticket booth, portable outhouses (you’ve been warned), and stage scaffolding set up in a beautiful, evocative meadow. Perhaps someone else has done this concept somewhere else before — it all fits so perfectly — but I believe it’s the first time in metro Atlanta, and its inventiveness kicks the dull-as-dishwater Broadway revival of “Hair” that came to the Fox Theatre a few years ago into the festival mud.
I don’t envy their daily commute, but Serenbe has assembled a strong cast of talented young Atlanta actors. You’ll recognize several faces if you attended the equally energetic production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Actor’s Express in January, and if you enjoyed that show, you’ll have a good time here. Classic songs such as “Ain’t Got No,” “White Boys” and “Walking in Space” really shine.
But the revival’s outdoor rock-concert concept would seem to provide the perfect opportunity to explore some of the show’s harder, rawer edges: as the subtitle informs us, this is “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” But things remain surprisingly gentle, quiet, polished and tame, even on chugging rock numbers. What’s wanted is more of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and less of the Fifth Dimension singing “Up, Up and Away.”
Regardless, this revival is smart, enjoyable and immersive (but never invasively so). The show ends with the powerful earworm “Let the Sunshine In,” which I defy anyone not to hum in the car on the way home. In fact, I’m hearing it now. Let the sunshine in, indeed. With this likable production, you may find that you can never let it back out again.
View additional photos of Serenbe’s cast of “Hair” here.