Sunday, July 2, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R: Take 2, Column 27, A Review: "Hair" (Sherman Playhouse)

By James V. Ruocco

Psychedelic tripping.
Burnt draft cards.
Flower-power idealism.
Politics or peace.
Cries of anger.
Sexual freedom.
Turbo-charged bohemia.

You guessed it!

"Hair".....the entice, cajole, revel and recall the bygone days of '60's youth, their revolutions, their protests, their pronouncements, their untamed spirits, their long shaggy hair, their flower power and their celebration of uninhibited couplings with boys, girls or curious members of the same sex.

In Sherman Playhouse's raw, immediate and creative staging, 'Hair" is heavily steeped in the nostalgia and craziness of yesteryear, replete with all its idiosyncrasies, revolutions and free-love. But in the very capable hands of director Francis A. Daley, it never once resembles a museum piece about the hippie generation, the Vietnam War, popping acid, hallucinations or bawdy encounters.

Instead, Daley offers theatregoers something that is bold, imaginative, vivid, real, daring, spontaneous and airborne. He isn't interested in doing a period piece just for the sake of doing a period piece. This "Hair" has individuality, spunk, sparkle and dazzle. It is firmly rooted in the subculture it recalls, but there is nothing vintage about it. Then, now, tomorrow, it speaks to a generation that gets it, understands it and appreciates its multi-colored, flavored  history.

The book, written by James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni, is a collective bit of rants, raves, protests, clich├ęs, laments and illusions borne out of the period from whence it all began. The scenes, the songs and the characters make perfect sense, but this is not a conventional musical. It's one of those gritty works where you can add, subtract, cut, revise or interpret things differently as long as you don't retract from the simple story of long-haired hippies struggling to make perfect sense out of their lives, their world and their uncertain future.

The musical score for "Hair" (music by Galt MacDermot; lyrics by Rado and Ragni) ties everything together through bluesy, jazzy and folk ballads, pop rock celebrations, cheery, noisy character turns and sexually-charged reflections. The actual songbook, culled from the original 1967 off-Broadway production, its subsequent 1968 Broadway debut and its many revivals, revisions, national tours and international incarnations including the 1969 London West End edition, can include anywhere from 40 to 55 songs.

The Sherman Playhouse production comes gift wrapped with just 34 songs including "Aquarius," "What a Piece of  Work Is Man," "I Got Life," "Electric Blues," "Ain't Got No," "Walking in Space," "Hippie Life," "Hashish" and "Don't Put It Down." Unfortunately, "Colored Spade"  and "White Boys/Black Boys" are omitted due to casting logistics (African-American actors didn't audition) and had to be scrapped. They are missed, yes, but every production of "Hair" makes cuts and changes to its always-evolving song list.

And what about the nude scene?
Originally, "Hare Krishna" magically glides into the "Where Do I Go?" finale of Act I. Here, in dimly-lit stage lighting (a directional choice that changes from production to production) the entire cast disrobes to either semi or full nudity, depending on their mood swings, stage direction or their desire to let it all hang out.

In Sherman, there is absolutely no nudity to flaunt, define, shock or titillate.
Yes, romping about naked in the great outdoors was a big part of the hippie culture. And yes, being naked glorifies the sexual freedom of the '60s. But the nude scene in "Hair," staged or deleted, isn't going to prompt any cries of protest or ticket refunds. Here, Daley makes a stand and closes Act I with a stirring, potent act of revolution as male characters toss their draft cards into the flaming fires of a  garbage can. Immediately after, they are lifted into the air and lowered and held over the flames for a second or two as their final statement of protest is made. It's a brilliant, evolving moment, rich in detail, color, imagination and period angst.

Much later, Daley sets the stage with a playful, hypnotic turn of ring around the rosy, performed and sung by the entire cast. The merriment turns to horror as the game continues, but one by one, each of the characters is shot to death. The raging war symbolism, the staging and the orchestration, is a brilliant stoke of genius on Daley's part that adds additional shading and color to  "Hair's" harsh realities of life, death and war.

Hair's" dizzying musical score, once described by MacDermot as "total funk," "characteristic," "folksy," "different" and "unexpected" remains as entertaining today as the very first day it was performed. Musical director Morgan Kelsey gives great significance and value to the score, its rock music and lyrics, its choral laments, anthem diatribes, hippie love-ins, pungent openers ("Aquarius") and closers ("Let the Sunshine In").

Yes, we are meant to enjoy it. But Kelsey makes sure that we do not forget its bristling undercurrents, melancholy, grittiness, despair, celebrations and cries for freedom. He succeeds nicely.

Daley's production is blessed with a fresh-faced, exuberant cast of young actors, none of whom,  were born when the real-hippies of the late 1960's romped around Central Park, Greenwich Village and Times Square. They not only play the characters, but they embrace and inhabit them as well.

Ray Cook offers a brooding, sexy, amicable interpretation of Hair's" shaggy-haired, stoned Berger, a Dionysus-like ringmaster of sorts who gets the tie-dyed, scraggly coiffed, colorful attired hippies on the Sherman Playhouse stage worked up into a complete emotional lather of angst, sexual abandonment, longing, revolution and drug-induced euphoria. Oozing plenty of charm, charisma and hyperactive grandstanding, he take hold of this difficult role, makes it his own and time travels back to 1968 to reenact the inner conflicts, torments, lust, confusion and fucked-up sensation that brought Berger to life in the first place. Yes, he's an actor. Yes, his role in the play is rehearsed. Yes, he knows how it begins and how is all ends. But he is so in touch with both the material and the part he is playing, he makes you believe you're seeing "Hair" for the very first time.

Vocally, he sings Berger's songs with fervor, imagination, pulse and excitement. He has great fun bringing them to life even when he missteps a lyric or two or loses vocal stamina nearly the end of a high-powered song and can't quite catch his breath. Regardless, he smiles, jumps back in, finds his inner strength and succeeds swimmingly. Standouts include the pungent and catchy "Donna" and the wildly jubilant "Hair," which he shares with the character of Claude.

As the Flushing-bred Claude Hooper Bukowski, the young man who is obsessed with the UK, in particular, Manchester, England, Joseph Devellis, has absolutely no trouble delving into the 1960's head first to find and reenact his hippie mojo, petulance, temperament, dissension, flippancy and flower-child craziness. Like Cook, he too is the real deal. He never once breaks character and offers a three-dimensional characterization that is firmly rooted in the turbulent,  psychedelic, misunderstood America of a half-century ago.

When it comes time to sing, Devellis wraps his clean, energetic vocal chops around Claude's many songs including the title tune, "Manchester, England" "Where Do I Go?" "I Got Life" and "Let the Sunshine In." Through he is very passionate about every one of them, he too, on occasion, skips a beat, misses a note or two and drops vocal momentum. Regardless, he keeps on going and successfully sustains the music's intended messages, meanings and cries of desperation, revolution and freedom.


Halfway through the second act, Claude fails to dodge the draft and ends up getting uniformed, his long blonde locks shorn and shipped off to war. The dazed, confused mental anguish he experiences is vividly expressed by Devellis who mirrors his character's frightening dilemma before being killed in a senseless war that nobody wanted.

In the role of Sheila Franklin, the outspoken, young revolutionary of the piece, Alyssa Serrambana  is a major force of energy, conflict, good nature, sexiness, complication and distinction. Her character's desire to change the world through protest and make it a better place (if that is at all humanly possible) is effectively and dramatically conveyed without any hints of caricature.

Like Cook and Devellis, she too gets her share of powerful, crowd-pleasing vocals: "Easy to Be Hard,"  "Good Morning Sunshine" and "I Believe in Love." Her crisp, clean voice is rich and full and  magical as she completely embraces the different styles and mood swings of her vocals, never once missing a single beat, lyric or note.

Playing the part of Woof, the animated, free-spirited charmer who enjoys getting high and drooling over posters of Mick Jagger, the rock star he wants to have sex with despite pronouncements that's he's "not homosexual," Austin Wayne, deliver a powerhouse performance that is crazy, colorful, dynamic, wild, outrageous, pure and spontaneous.

Panegyrizing the sexual choices of "masturbation, sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus and pederasty"
in the comic paean "Sodomy," Wayne digests the flavor and sensationalism of his musical number in such winning, wacky and merry ways, the creators of "Hair" would happily applaud his genius, frenzied interpretation. Much later, when Woof is presented with a poster of his beloved Mick Jagger, the character's masturbatory LSD-flavored excitement, produces some hilariously orchestrated humping and frenzy that Wayne unleashes with such fury, you can't help but applaud this actor's unabashed talent and creativity.

As Crissy, Shea Coughlin is both tender and touching as she sings the sweet-natured ballad "Frank Mills," a Lennon/McCartney-like song about a young girl's chance encounter with a boy she met in front of the Waverly. The equally charismatic Jerusha Wright also stands out as Jeannie, a pregnant hippie who longs for Claude both romantically and sexually, but, unfortunately, got knocked up by some other burnt-out stoner instead.

This delicious revival of "Hair" also includes exceptional, detailed, well-crafted costume designs by Terry Hawley; moody, evocative lighting by Peter Petrino; and very snappy, frenzied period  choreography by Marisa Caron.


"Hair" is being staged at the Sherman Playhouse (5 Rt. 39 North, Sherman, CT) through July 29.
Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
For more information, call (860)  354-3622.

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