Monday, June 15, 2015

Theater Review: Hair -- Playhouse on Park

Flower children in abundance in Hair at Playhouse on the Park. Photo: Tibor Zoller
This Production Pulled the Hair Back from My Eyes
By Lauren Yarger
It's a bunch of hippies doing drugs, having free sex and protesting against the United States. Usually not one of my favorite stories, despite some Galt MacDermot songs like “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine” and the title song which topped the pop charts when I was a kid and which still are fun to hear.

But Playhouse on Park’s production of the 1960’s “Tribal Love Rock Musical,” directed by Co-Founder and Artistic Director Sean Harris, pulled the Hair back from my eyes and caused me to see this musical in a whole new way.

With the Playhouse’s largest ensemble cast ever, this production of Hair focuses on the individual characters and seeing life at the tumultuous time through their eyes. Excellent lighting design by Aaron Hochheiser creates separate worlds for us to see on the small stage.

Instead of trying to convince us we should be embracing this hairy lot, solid performances across the board from the tribe (despite the fact that there are only two Equity performers among them) and Harris’ wise focus on the people instead of trying to make a political statement, combine to give this story a fresh telling. I enjoyed it much more than the recent award-winning revival on Broadway, which was brilliantly staged, but which kept demanding that I join in and endorse the celebration.

In this production, the tribe (the term used to describe this show’s hippie, commune-like group of young people) are dressed so authentically in fashions of the time by Costume Designer Demara Cabrera (who also designs the set) that we feel transported back to the 1960s and its protests with a “make love, not war/ flower-power” unrest. The cast is put through razor-sharp choreography by Darlene Zolle (also co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director at the playhouse). We clearly see the horrors of the Viet Nam War, racial injustice and the hopelessness of a generation through the haze of pot with a trip through LSD. (Note: that haze is a little too real with herbal cigarettes filling the small theater with a heavy marijuana scent. I spent about 20 minutes trying not to inhale and timing coughs to the louder parts of dialogue and song when the cast lit up near the top of the second act.)

In 1967, in the midst of an era where young men burned their draft cars and yelled, “Hell no, we won’t go,” young Claude (Michael J. Walker, one of the Equity actors) find his number has been called and feels pressure from his parents to give the military a chance to make a man out of him. He would much rather pretend he is from “Manchester England” and  hang out with his hippie friends, Berger (Ryan Connolly, the other Equity member) who recently got thrown out of school, Woof (Kevin Barlowski), a guy who acts a lot like a dog, his African-American (and pleasantly voiced) friends, Dionne (Kristen Jeter ) and Hud (Kameren Chase Neal ) and a bunch of girls. Well, he likes  hanging with any and all of the girls, really.

There’s protest leader Sheila (Tara Novie), who sort of was Berger’s girl before, Jeanie (Jessie MacBeth) who is pregnant and wishes the baby were Claude’s instead of the result of a liaison with a guy on speed, and Crissy (Lauren Monteleone) an innocent girl who seems lost.

The tribe is studied by a guy in drag identifying himself as Margaret Mead (Jose Plaza, who had everyone at intermission taking about his amazing soprano) and tries to deal with the realities of one of their own going off to war.

Now don’t get me wrong. Just because I didn’t feel as though I were being asked to burn an American flag during this production doesn’t mean it doesn’t engage the audience. It does. Audience members are greeted by hippies playing drums in the lobby and cast members come out into the house to interact with theatergoers several times during the two-hour-30-minute production. In addition, two Open Mic Nights with an accompanist are set for June 20 and July 18 to allow you to become part of the tribe if you wish. Talkbacks with the cast also are held following Sunday matinees.

The nine-member band, under the musical direction of Colin Britt and Emmett Drake, sits on stage in a sort of cage-like environment that keeps it separate, yet connected to the action. My two complaints: the sound mix makes it difficult to hear certain performers and the arrangement of “Good Morning Starshine” was a bit too halting.

Finally, a production of Hair that sent me home singing “Let the Sunshine In,” instead of “They chain ya and brainwash ya when you least suspect it.”

Hair plays at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford through July 19. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $15-$45. Additional special ticket offers are available. 860-523-5900 x10 or visit www.playhouseonpark.org.

The ensemble: Courtney Rada, Peej Mele, Matt Magrath, Alejandra Lopez, Oludare Bernard, Emily Elizabeth Jones, Karissa Harris, Kelsey Flynn, Mallory Cunningham, Dalton Bertolone and Mary Berthelsen.

Note: The show posts warnings for brief nudity, adult language, sexual content, suggested drug use, burning incense and flashing lights. HAIR is recommended for ages 16 and up. 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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