“Hair” at Playhouse on Park

By Brooks Appelbaum

Upon walking into Playhouse on Park, you will immediately see that for it its production of Hair the company has turned its entire lobby into a time capsule of the late 1960s. Posters line the walls: “Black Power”; “Make Love, Not War.” A haze lingers: not exactly pot, but reminiscent of that sweet, pungent smell. In the lobby, tie-dye-clad actors and musicians are drumming in a happy, dreamy state. This all creates a nice atmosphere, but really: we all know that 1968 was forty-seven years ago, as was the first Broadway production of this musical by James Rado and George Ragni (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (composer). Do these extra touches signal a bit of anxiety about how Hair will play in the West Hartford of 2015?

The answer comes in the first moment of this remarkable show. As the lights go down on the evocative, adult-sized-playground set by Demara Cabrera, and then illuminate the mesmerizing and multi-talented Kristen Jeter (Dionne), singing the first notes of “Aquarius,” this production takes us straight into the center of Hair’s long-ago time, place, and counter-culture. Not only does this make for an absorbing, at times hilarious, at times disturbing, and at times heartbreaking evening, but the actors’ power and commitment to this piece (vocally, physically, and emotionally) is all the more moving since they themselves are time-traveling: none of them could be over thirty, and most are clearly in their early to mid-twenties.

To their credit, and to the great credit of their terrific director, Sean Harris, this company sells every moment of the show and every nuance of these naïve, powerful, confused, passionate, foolish, and brave young people: the “Tribe” that makes up the company of Hair. For more than two hours, they transport us, in every sense of that word. Whether the scene is lewdly ludicrous (“Sodomy”), boldly sarcastic (“Colored Spade” and “I’m Black”); delicately tender (“Easy to Be Hard”; “Frank Mills” and “Where Do I Go”) or gut-wrenchingly sad (“”What a Piece of Work is Man” and “How Dare They Try”), this “Tribe” compels us to follow.

Hair’s plot is subtle, but it builds power over the course of the nearly sung-through (over thirty numbers) musical portrait of sexual freedom, racial prejudice defied, and drug-inspired abandon. Towards the end of the first act it’s clear that the strongest dramatic arc follows the youthful movement against the Viet Nam war and, most particularly, against the draft. The swaggering Berger (brilliantly played by Ryan Connolly) seems impervious to the possible consequences, and he, like the other men, burns his draft card without qualms at the “Be In” war protest. Claude (the touching Michael Jayne Walker) drives the story with his mixture of sweet self-confidence (“Manchester England, England”) and his curious hesitation to defy the draft as his cronies do.

The show spotlights several characters beyond Berger and Claude, and these are all beautifully portrayed. Tara Novie plays Sheila, the tough protest leader (the Tribe calls her “Joan of Arc”) with a vulnerable heart, and she hits every note of this complex character. As tender Jeanie, who is “hung up” on Claude, Jessie MacBeth gives us a young woman who is at once unusually down to earth and achingly fragile. Kameren Neal brings charisma, brass, and a beautiful voice to the role of Hud, and as tender Crissy (who sings “Frank Mills”), Lauren Monteleone seems to define the phrase “flower child.” Kristen Jeter, as Dionne, comes as close to stealing this show as is possible without compromising the crucial sense of community on the stage. And Jose Plaza adds a hilarious cameo turn as Margaret Mead.

The band, led by music directors Emmett Drake and Colin Britt, is terrific, and though the actors use body mics, the sound (designed by Joel Abbott and engineered by Dave Glanovsky) is well controlled. In part, this is due, again, to director Harris’s choices and the actors’ skill: in every number -- and this is especially noticeable in the solos -- character portrayal comes before vocal display, even when it’s clear that the actor has power to spare. And Darlene Zoller has choreographed the piece to emphasize this Tribe’s unity: group circles are the dominant shape.

There is much to say about why Hair is, in many respects, as relevant now as it was in 1968. Most obviously and simply, we may no longer have a draft, per se, but we are fighting endless wars, using young men and women who, for the most part, don’t have the economic freedom to pursue other employment. In addition, though, Playhouse on Park’s production has the intrinsic relevance of all fine, gripping theater. No matter what age, audience members will leave this show moved, and -- one can hope -- in some way, changed.

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