Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, hippie flower power, racial tension and, above all, the looming sense of terror in young men facing the very likely possibility of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.

It was the Age of Aquarius, a period of massive social upheaval in the culture of this country (and beyond), which perhaps reached its apogee in 1967 with “the summer of love” in San Francisco and the march on the Pentagon a few months later. Meanwhile, in New York, it was the shock-and-awe of “Hair (The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical),” opening the next year on Broadway, where its knowingly transgressive songs included one (“Hashish”) that served up a lexicon of drug terminology; another (“Sodomy”) that named the full spectrum of sexually explicit behavior; others that celebrated interracial relationships (“Black Boys” and “White Boys”), plus the somewhat scandalous “Be-In,” in which everybody got naked as they chanted the Hare Krishna mantra.

‘HAIR’
Recommended
When: Through Sept. 17
Where: Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport
Tickets: $30 – $65
Info: (773) 325-1700;
www.mercurytheaterchicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

The cast of “Hair,” the 1960s era musical now in a revival at Mercury Theater Chicago. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Now a half century old, “Hair” has returned, this time in a Mercury Theater Chicago production that is at once grand-scale yet intimate as well as fiercely energetic, and aims to capture the fashion (via Robert Kuhn’s fringe, beads and neo-gypsy costumes), attitudes (a brew of peace, love, militancy and hedonism), anxieties and marijuana haze of the period (even if, ironically, the stuff is increasingly being legalized).

The 1960s are an incredibly tricky period to reinvent without seeming fake and kitschy. But while not everything old in “Hair” is new again (something understood by those who lived through the era, as I, along with a brother of draft age, did), the current sense of a country profoundly divided over many issues has its parallels in the musical. And as an anthropological artifact (the show even has a cameo turn for Margaret Mead, although she is horribly trivialized), it has both its truths and half-truths. Best of all, there is the show’s still iconic, and both bracing and embracing (and largely sung-through) score by composer Galt MacDermott, and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado. “Hair,” it should be recalled, was the “Rent” and “Hamilton” of its day.

At the Mercury, director Brenda Didier (in collaboration with choreographer Chris Carter) has given us a classic environmental staging, making extensive use of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s squatter-like set with its scaffolding and slanted wooden beams suggesting communal squalor, and its flamboyance emphasized by a thrust perch that projects into the audience. This in-your-face quality fits a show about young people reveling in the flesh even as a far-off war (and the war in the streets) magnifies their sense of mortality.

At the center of the show’s “tribe” are two friends in late adolescence: Claude (Liam Quealy), the sensitive guy from a middle-class family in Queens, New York, whose parents cannot accept their son’s rebellion, and Berger (Matthew Keefer, who moves like a wild cat), the angrier and more overtly sexual guy who gets expelled from high school. It is Claude who gets his draft notice but, but despite pressure from all around him, cannot burn it. Yet he celebrates every part of his still unbloodied body and spirit in “I Got Life,” a song to which Quealy brings exceptional fire and conviction. That sentiment is reiterated later in a beautiful rendering (led by Caleb Baze) of  “What a Piece of Work Is Man” (and of course who better to borrow lyrics from than Shakespeare)?

The clarion voices of this theatrical “tribe” are top notch, and beyond Quealy and Keffer include Evan Tyrone Martin (star of Paramount’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”) as the angry Hud; Aaron M. Davidson, who is in love with Mick Jagger, as the quirky Woof; Sheila (Michelle Lauto, so stellar in “Spamilton”) as Sheila, the activist who goes to the Pentagon march, and who knocks out the torchy “Easy to Be Hard”; Jeannie (Lucy Godinez), who is in love with Berger but pregnant from a casual encounter; Cherise Thomas as Dionne, the voice of Aquarius; Candace C. Edwards (who does a terrific job in a race-reversed take on Abraham Lincoln); Leryn Turlington as the innocent Crissy, who brings effortless charm to “Frank Mills,” the funny-sad tale of her crush on a guy she encountered once in the West Village. Music director Eugene Dizon and his five-piece band also give full power to the score.

And what about that nude scene? Nick Belley’s lighting, and the subtly camouflaging psychedelic projections by Pete Guither (of The Living Canvas) are just artful and revealing enough. Besides, by now you’ve seen far more on the Internet.

Liam Quealy plays Claude in the Mercury Theater Chicago production of “Hair.” (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)