WATERTOWN — So many layers of mystique are attached to “Hair’’ that it’s easy to forget what a self-indulgent, incoherent mess it actually is in many ways.
There’s no avoiding that bleak truth at New Repertory Theatre, despite the near-heroic efforts of a youthful cast that generates plenty of sheer kinetic energy under the guidance of director-choreographer Rachel Bertone.
Attired in tie-dye shirts, bell-bottoms, and bandanas to portray a band of hippies in New York’s East Village celebrating the virtues of peace, love, drugs, and the bohemian life under the shadow of the Vietnam War, the New Rep ensemble gamely gives it everything they’ve got, including their considerable talent. But it’s a constant struggle for performers and director alike to keep from drowning in “Hair’s’’ whirlpool of verbose and nearly plotless inanity.
Obviously, “Hair’’ is a landmark musical. Subtitled “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,’’ its Broadway debut in 1968, after an earlier run at the Public Theater, was notable for its racially diverse cast. (The same is true of the New Rep production.) The success of “Hair’’ helped to pave the way for rock musicals — and nudity, for that matter — on Broadway. (For the record, there is a nude scene at New Rep.)
It must have been thrilling to be immersed in the freewheeling spirit of “Hair’’ at the height of the counterculture: a near-perfect marriage of musical and zeitgeist. But in 2020 “Hair’’ largely registers as thin and painfully dated, almost a parody of itself. Watching “Hair’’ today makes you feel like you’ve got a ringside seat for someone else’s acid trip — sound fun? — or as if you’re watching Goldie Hawn’s impersonation of a spaced-out flower child on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.’’
In fairness, it should be noted that the antiwar message of “Hair’’ still comes through strongly, at least near the end, when the grim realities of Vietnam close in, to the shiver-inducing strains of “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In).’’
At the head of the “tribe’’ in “Hair’’ are Claude (Eddie Simon), who is alienated from his uptight (of course) suburban (of course) parents and trying to decide whether to refuse or comply with induction into the armed services, and Berger (Eddie Shields), who is meant to be charismatic in a childlike kind of way but comes across instead as immensely irritating.
Also grating is the depiction of women in “Hair,’’ which reflects, and is marred by, the sexism of its era. When Sheila (Marge Dunn) is slapped across the face by Berger, the next words out of her mouth are “I adore you.’’ (The scene is made only slightly less noxious by the fact that Dunn then launches into “Easy to Be Hard,’’ and nails it.) As for the pregnant Jeanie (Katrina Z Pavao), she gushes over the object of her own adoration thusly: “Claude is my acid. Claude is my trip.’’
That’s a typical example, by the way, of the dialogue by Gerome Ragni and James Rado in “Hair,’’ which tends toward gurgling streams of consciousness that dry to a trickle and generally avoids anything so mundane as a story line. It’s illuminating to consider “Hair’’ alongside one of its obvious spiritual descendants, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.’’ Premiering in 1996, “Rent’’ also drew a portrait of convention-flouting bohemians who formed a family-like bond as a bulwark against a world that refused to understand them. But Larson knew that a musical’s message depends for its resonance — and its endurance — on the strength of its songs, stories, and characters.
The handful of undeniably good songs in “Hair’’ (the music is by Galt MacDermot) are eclipsed by too many forgettable and even perfunctory tunes, some amounting to no more than fragments. Luckily, the New Rep production features such topnotch singers as Yewande Odetoyinbo, who plays Dionne and opens the show by leading the ensemble in a stirring rendition of “Aquarius’’; Lovely Hoffman (Celie in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “The Color Purple’’) as an unnamed member of the tribe; and Aaron Patterson (who made a vivid impression as Jim Conley in Moonbox Productions’ recent staging of “Parade’’) as another unnamed tribe member.
Bertone’s explosive choreography accounts for some of the musical’s best moments. In the Act One number “Donna,’’ for instance, she has the cast racing through a series of poses and movements that range from regimented, close-quarters unison to loose-limbed elasticity to a sudden reaching skyward to a languid swoon.
But none of her good work or that of her cast is sufficient to erase the off-putting, self-congratulatory smugness that suffuses “Hair,’’ or to diminish the sour feeling that some of the important social changes that did occur in the 1960s have been reduced — in what is seen as the quintessential Sixties musical, no less — to cliché and cartoon.
Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado. Music by Galt MacDermot. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Music direction, Dan Rodriguez. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Feb. 23. Tickets start at $25, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org