Naked Hippies Groove in ‘Hair,’ Rufus’s Diva: London Stage

There are bangs, beads and a cast of hippies who go buck-naked. It’s time to welcome back the 1960s musical “Hair.”

Fresh from its Tony Award-winning run on Broadway, Diane Paulus’s production is now spreading its counterculture message of love, lust and LSD in London’s West End theater district. And fun it is, too.

Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s show tells the story of Claude, a sweet-natured hippie, who fails to evade his draft to Vietnam. The plot isn’t really the point of the piece, though. It’s more a loosely structured revue of solos and ensembles (“Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine” and “Let the Sun Shine In”) extolling the virtues of turning off, tuning in and dropping tabs.

Paulus keeps things simple. There are few props, and the set consists only of brightly painted platforms for the band. The cast (imported from the U.S. production) stays on stage throughout in their 1960s costumes to create the atmosphere of a druggy love-in.

Karole Armitage’s fluid choreography flows with energy and speed, and the interaction with the audience is handled amusingly. Be warned: If you choose to sit in the front row to gape at the genitals in the nude finale to Act 1, you’ll also have to face cast members (clothed) clambering over you to get to the middle of the stalls to deliver hugs and sing songs.

Sexual Revolution

The drawback is that the contemporary urgency of the message has diminished. The specter of AIDS can’t but hover now over the characters’ demands for sexual freedom. And the fact that there’s no military draft any more provides another sepia tint to the proceedings. In the show, the draft is vital, as it’s seen as the chief enemy of individual hedonism. More so, even, than the enemy of political justice in Vietnam.

Ultimately, the production’s strength also provides the backers with the biggest question mark. In celebrating hedonism with such verve and joy, “Hair” feels like a show for a time of affluence, not of belt-tightening.

Whether it succeeds or not, it’s still heartening to see individualism and youth extolled with such verve. Rating: ***.

‘Prima Donna’

It’s less of a treat to hear the vague woes of a self- centered opera singer paraded on stage for 2 1/2 hours. That’s the case with Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna,” which receives its London premiere in a new staging by Tim Albery.

It tells the story of reclusive soprano Regine Saint Laurent, who is thinking of making a comeback after six years of silence. She sings a duet with a journalist, who is also a former singer and has been sent to interview her. She then finds out he has a fiance, and decides to cancel the comeback.

In plot terms, it’s pretty much free of conflict, tension and coherence. In musical terms, it’s free of grand symphonic sweep too. The music -- a curious mix of Philip Glass, Janacek and Strauss -- keeps stopping and starting to underscore and underline each change of emotion.

Designer Antony McDonald creates a suitably gloomy high- ceilinged Parisian apartment for Regine, and Albery works hard to keep things clear. Despite a few hoarse notes, Janis Kelly sounds lovely as the heroine.

Their efforts can’t rescue this hodge-podge. Rating: **.

‘Polar Bears’

The latest world premiere at the lively Donmar Theatre is “Polar Bears” by Mark Haddon (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), which explores the relationship between bipolar sufferer Kay and her husband John. At first, John, a gentle philosophy teacher, seems to be a pillar of strength. Then his need to be needed comes to feel like a straightjacket for his unstable wife.

Into this relatively uncomplicated situation Haddon throws long lectures -- delivered directly to the audience -- about philosophy, religion and how a body decomposes. Jesus appears. He drinks coffee with Kay, and makes pathetic remarks such as “The cross thing? No, that wasn’t too good.”

There’s a lot going on. Way too much, in fact, for the slight story to hold. The monologue-lectures sound as if they’ve been cut-and-pasted from the encyclopedia, and feel both patronizing and interminable.

Jodhi May is touchingly vulnerable as Kay, and Richard Coyle brings a blokeish geniality to John. Jamie Lloyd’s simple 90-minute production is clear as a bell. That’s still not enough to pull the whole thing together. Rating: **.

“Hair” is at the Gielgud Theatre. Information: http://www.hairthemusical.co.uk or +44-844-482-5130. “Prima Donna” is at Sadler’s Wells Theatre through April 17, see http://www.sadlerswells.com or call +44-844-412-4300. “Polar Bears” is at the Donmar Theatre through May 22, go to http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or call +44-844-871-7642.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:

****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

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