Review by Dennis Kempton
The tempting thing to do in a review of the musical Hair is to render social commentary. The predictable thing to do about the musical Hair is to talk about its continued relevance in today’s culture or how tame it is in comparison to the varied parts of our “liberated” culture that pass for entertainment in the second decade of the twenty-first century. But, the right way to start off a review of the musical Hair is to say that its longevity and popularity speak to something: the yearning for people sitting in the audience to feel something–some sense of personal and political liberation; to rise up, even if in the span of two hours, vicariously, and say “fuck off” to a system that disenfranchises and marginalizes so much–so very much. In this way, I’ll begin the way I’ve usually ended reviews: Hair is still a vital part of the theatrical repertoire and always will be because people need it as a record of history and for the catharsis it brings. See it.
Now, on to business. The Duluth Playhouse’s production of the iconic show Hair opened Thursday to a full house. Of course, these days, the Playhouse is always full, but what was different this time was the diversity of ages and the level of enthusiasm emanating from the house seats, proving that though some jaded cynics might have yawned ironically at yet another venue putting on Hair, the show was widely anticipated and enthusiastically supported here.
The plot line is deceptively simple. Colorful clothing, long hair, pot-smoking, draft dodging, and sexual ambiguity adorn the lives of a group of counter culture misfits, ne’er-do-wells, and erstwhile properly raised young people. They’re about love, peace, understanding. They shout out against the war and LBJ. Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical hit broadway in the spring of 1968 for 1,750 performances and defined the rock-musical genre. It’s still being revived, most recently in 2010 in London’s famed West End.
Tonya Porter and ensemble open the show with the number “Aquarius.” Porter’s soulful rendering and the opening number’s choreography sets the show on solid footing. It’s a big responsibility to open up the show vocally and so much flows, atmospherically, from the opening number. Porter makes the song her own and inhabits the lyrics with the rise and fall of her voice. She has been a supporting actor in several local productions where her unique vocal style has been part of the mix, and it’s gratifying to hear it put stage center. She also lends her considerable volume during the show’s ensemble numbers, adding depth and funk where it’s needed.
Arguably one of the city’s most versatile stage actors, Zachary Stofer’s opening monologue as the stone cold hippie Berger takes the time to explain, in entertaining fashion, naturally, the premise of what’s going to happen on stage over the next two hours. Whether playing a lead role in something as tame and as romantic as The Sound of Music or a supporting role in Spring Awakening, Stofer goes the distance in realizing a character. No less happens here with his principal role in Hair. From the opening moments of his time on stage through the entire show, Stofer shows a believable and impassioned defense of a life where no attachments are made to anything expected of Berger and of a life given over to throwing those expectations back into the face of the culture, itself, whether Berger is moving from one sexual encounter to the next or cajoling his friends into the burning of their draft cards. It’s a charismatic performance where, if played wrong, could be the disgusting caricature of every reason why some decried the counterculture. Stofer avoids playing for the laughs (or groans) of taking one side or the other.
For his part, relative newcomer Pascal Pastrana turns in a vivid performance as Claude, the main figure and point of conscience in the show. Impressive is his ability to hold his own with Stofer on stage along with transitioning, over the course of time with remarkable acuity, sensitivity, and most importantly, subtlety, from the bombastic and more than slightly conceited character traits of Claude in “Manchester, England,” to the doubting quietude of his decision to join up instead of being-in. Pastrana turns in a playful and energetic performance in “I Got Life” where, again, Elyse Snider’s choreography demands focus from the actors and an all out exuberance that drives each step home.
Notable performances by Teran Ferguson as Sheila, part of the Berger/Claude love triangle and from Casey Maher as the shocking pot-smoking pregnant girl, Jeannie add shine to an already colorful tableau. Teran’s vocal chops are growing with time, noticeably in her last turn on the Playhouse stage in A Chorus Line, and more pronounced here with a sorrowful interlude in the storyline with one of the show’s more beautiful numbers, “Easy to Be Hard.” Ferguson amps it up again showing confidence in leading the ensemble in the playful number, “Good Morning Sunshine” in the second act. Maher’s performance is effortlessly funny, which is just another indicator that being effortlessly funny is not easy. She’s a scene stealer–watch out. Other notable ensemble members making breakouts on their own in polishing the show are Alex Goebel as Woof, Kate Horvath as Crissy, and, lastly an acrobatic and hard-working Seth Colvin. Watch for him in “Colored Spade.” A very funny Scott Hebert takes on several duties during the show, the most impressive of which is a deliciously naughty Margaret Meade. Not to be missed.
The show’s more baudy content pokes fun at conventions and, instead of being lascivious, makes the show’s message about casting off expectations clear and humorous simultaneously. The cast gets it right without any kind of awkwardness or hesitation. In fact, the manner in which the ensemble interacts physically, without prudery or hesitation in caressing each other, lying on one another, or being intimate with each other is a testament to the preparation and commitment the entire production seems to exhibit in regards to the script and their understanding of the culture of the time.
And then there’s the lighting. Ken Pogin is widely known here for his lighting for the Minnesota Ballet. Letting loose here with Hair is to be expected and Pogin’s rich and vivid saturation of the show in the panorama of colors of the 60s is its own animal entirely. One can’t possibly go over the top with the lighting possibilities and Pogin’s concept from top to bottom of the show really is the glue that brings all the elements together. The jumping white lights of the gunshots, the bath of greens, oranges, reds, and blues, and the crisp ethereal white of the end scene are all master strokes in professionalism and intuitive understanding of what each scene and each cue brings to defining what is happening on stage. Sasha Howell’s costume design is also a touchpoint of the show’s success. Coupled with Ken’s lighting, the show’s time-machine look is a “Laugh-In” style combination that is pleasant to the eye and important to the production’s success.
The only flaw to be found is the Playhouse sound. With the rising quality of shows and with the challenging number of scripts coming to life on stage, it’s time for the Playhouse to put in a state of the art and new sound system. During some of the show’s big numbers, scratches could be heard through the hanging speakers, blunting the effect. The live band and the music, itself, deserves–and demands–more.
Lastly, the thirty-second nude scene in the first act has always been a controversial and meaningful part of the Hair experience. In the Playhouse production, the nudity is far less a thing of nakedness than it is a celebration of what the counterculture represented to itself: liberation. From the sexual politics of the 60s to the embrace of body and pleasure itself, one of the healthiest things to come from the rejection of prudishness and sexual shame that the 60s put forth is an appreciation for sex and body on their own. You can’t DO Hair without the nudity. And you can’t appreciate Hair FOR the nudity. It’s not an easy thing for an actor to take off his or her clothes for 200 people in Duluth. The cast, in its commitment to the integrity of the script and to the history of the show itself, is to be applauded for its choice for authenticity. It was a beautiful moment bathed tastefully in shadow and light. And, instead of being something lascivious or inciting, it was an emotional connection to laying oneself bare: whether at the point of the guns of war, in the eyes of parental disappointment, or at the doubts of one’s own worth.
A well-executed production–from, shall we say, a village of directors and stagers. It takes a village, sometimes, to raise a show. This one is not to be missed.
HAIR. Book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni. Music by Galt MacDermot. Staged by Liz Larson and Elyse Snider for the Duluth Playhouse. With Vanessa Barr, Juli Jake Caceres, Christina Case, Seth Colvin, Johanna Dittus, Teran Ferguson, Alex Goebel, Tyler Goebel, James Goodman, Emma Harvie, Scott Hebert, Kate Horvath, Savannah Howes, Jessica Ilaug, Kristi June, Kaio Kealoha, Casey Maher, Erin Miller, Kelly Mulan, Pascal Pastrana, Tonya Porter, Zachary Stofer, Jessica Trihey, and Dereck Williams. Choreography by Elyse Snider. Artistic Director: Christine Gradl Seitz. Musical Director: Patrick Colvin. The show runs Wednesdays through Sundays through July 29. Wednesday-Saturday curtain: 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee curtain: 2 p.m. The Duluth Playhouse is at 506 West Michigan Street, Duluth.
© 2012 OEUVRE Magazine. All rights reserved.