BWW Reviews: All-Star Cast Brings Lively HAIR to the Hollywood Bowl
When it was first announced that this year's highly-anticipated annual star-studded concert staging of a Broadway musical at the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl was going to be "the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" HAIR, a couple of things immediately came to mind---well at least in mine and, perhaps, a few others.
First, I thought... cool, that's quite an adventurous leap from the normal offerings of past years (though, it should be noted that last year's CHICAGO was already a step in the bawdy direction). And secondly... wow, are they actually going to be doing nudity at the Hollywood Bowl? And will it be a historic first?
Fast forward to the show's dazzling Opening Night, August 1... and for those still wondering, yes, as in most faithful productions of the musical---including the superb, much lauded 2009 Tony Award-winning revival---the tradition of cast members shedding garments does indeed continue (albeit none of the principal cast drops trou and only those in the most expensive seats down front can catch a glimpse of the very, very brief scene; in a classy move, the gigantic HD screens does not provide gratuitous close-up shots).
But, honestly, the short, blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene (no longer that shocking in this day and age, frankly) is hardly the most talked-about aspect of the production---and rightly so. As in past presentations of their summer spectaculars, arguably the biggest draw for the Hollywood Bowl summer musical is in its stunt casting, a curiosity-baiting practice that provides a too-quick, three-show outlet for high-profile stars to bravely moonlight in roles they don't normally engage in on a more regular basis (even scarier, they only have a few days to put it all together).
Many summers have provided the more forgiving Hollywood Bowl audience an eyebrow-raising cavalcade of TV, film, and music stars warbling showtunes live on a massive stage, quite often to mixed results. For every jaw-dropping, incredible discovery (I'm still in awe years later of Nicole Scherzinger in RENT) there's another that, well, should at the very least be applauded for gamely giving it a try in the first place (but you may not want to do that again, sweetie).
To my delight, though, this year's crop of young, impossibly photogenic talents almost all have some experience in musical theater, which certainly elevated expectations a bit more. And to top it off, the entire production---which plays two additional performances this weekend---is helmed and choreographed by Hairspray film director Adam Shankman---a guy who, well, let's face it knows a thing or two about musicals.
The resulting show, unsurprisingly, is, at its core, a fun, charmingly naughty, rather gleeful (pun definitely intended) celebration that genuinely entertains despite being, still, occasionally baffling. Why baffling? Well, HAIR doesn't exactly follow a straight-forward narrative but, rather, utilizes a series of musicalized mantras and manifestos---some light-hearted, some political, some non-sensical, some contemplative---that convey the beliefs of a set of drug-fueled, free-loving teens during the height of 60's counter-culture.
Yes, HAIR's forward trajectory and amped-up shenanigans have always been a bit of a head-trip. But, honestly, for me... they're exactly part of its alluring charm. As audience members, HAIR invites us into the inner sanctum of their lovefest, and much of the time, this merriment is infectious---making us mere observers a part of the party. Sprinkled within its brazen themes and liberal motifs---from carnal fluidity and unabashed herbal recreation to governmental defiance and follicle freedom---is essentially a musical that celebrates the joy of being true to oneself, freak or not.
Newbies coming to the show expecting a traditional book musical might be a bit disappointed at HAIR's chaotic, free-flowing nature, which essentially mirrors the tribe's hallucinogenic, unstructured lives. But once you surrender to the happy, care-free nature of the show, you'll find it quite pleasurable and, wow, even thought-provoking. Additionally, I'm also still to this day quite enamored by the music of HAIR (written by composer Galt MacDermot and book writers/lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni), especially in latter incarnations that fuse a bit more funk into the orchestrations.
These songs are, of course, performed by likable characters in the show; and in this production in particular, the gloriously multi-gendered, multi-ethnic cast that has been assembled together to sing the songs are, without a doubt, super appealing.
As Berger, the fun-loving de-facto ring-leader of this rollicking band of dissenters, Benjamin Walker (BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON) effortlessly oozes charisma, a necessary trait that makes him the believable object of lust for everyone within his sphere. The guy just looks like a genuine star, whether espousing on the pleasures of life (mostly sex, drugs, and the defiance of authority) or leading his buddies through a multitude of drug-induced bacchanals.
By contrast, Berger's best pal, the gentler, less self-assured Claude is played with authentic vulnerability by the handsome Hunter Parrish (TV's Weeds, SPRING AWAKENING). As we watch (and hear) Parrish struggle with his character's dreams versus facing responsibilities (like when he receives his draft card to fight in Vietnam), we can't help but feel empathy for the kid when he's down, and feel joy for him when he's happy. His ballads, embellished with some exquisite riffs, are just heartbreaking.
Like hovering satellites, the rest of the attractive tribe that orbits Berger and Claude includes the lovely (and lovely-voiced) Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, the voice of Anna in Frozen) as politically-charged NYU co-ed Shiela; Glee's Amber Riley sounding incredible as resident soul diva Dionne; Riley's Glee co-star Jenna Ushkowitz as the hilariously horny but very preggers Jeanie; Modern Family beauty Sarah Hyland as lovestruck ditz Crissy; R&B star Mario as seductive Black Pride igniter Hud; scene-stealing Jonah Platt as adorkable goofball (and Mick Jagger super-fan) Woof; and finally Beverly D'Angelo and Kevin Chamberlin as Claude's nagging parents. Chamberlin also makes an uproarious turn as Margaret Mead, a sweet old woman (with a, um, secret) who comes up on stage---as a representative of the "confused" audience, of course---to offer her support and understanding for these misunderstood misfits.
Unlike in some of the previous musicals the Hollywood Bowl has mounted (where some stars in the cast shined better than others), I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the uniformly great caliber of acting and singing performances from all the stars involved this time around (well, okay, maybe not so much with D'Angelo, who sort of disappears in the haze). I was particularly enchanted by both Walker, a mesmerizing actor with killer looks and a killer voice to match, and local L.A.-area actor Platt (whom I thoroughly enjoyed in the recent L.A. revival of BARE: THE MUSICAL), who basically delighted all 17,000 audience members whenever he appeared. I predict amazing things for this dude, who ended up becoming my favorite presence the entire night.
Among the ladies, I was struck by how pretty Ushkowitz, Hyland, and Bell sounded in their respective solo ballads. I also want to point out how Ushkowitz in this show proves that she has been sorely underutilized to the fullest extent on Glee. HAIR not only showcased her already known vocal abilities, but it also revealed how wonderfully endearing and, wow, how much of an effortless comic actor she is!
And speaking of Glee... those already familiar with the beautiful vocal stylings of Ms. Riley through her work on the TV series will not be disappointed by her musical contributions to HAIR. As expected, her impeccable riffs gave me chills throughout the show (and I would like to offer my sincere apologies to the audience members next to me who had to deal with my orgasmic convulsions every time she sang something).
The ensemble cast should also earn praises for their vocal contributions and their dynamic dancing. They truly became the heart of the show.
While, sure, the cast, vocally, sounded great for the most part, particularly during the dizzying ensemble numbers that feature some beautifully layered harmonies, many of the principal actors sounded quite breathless---and for good reason. I can only imagine how tiring it must have been leaping and running from one end to another of that massive Bowl stage. This is by no means a sit-down, park-and-bark type of show. This cast was constantly in motion, so the breathlessness is certainly forgivable (especially for someone like me who gets winded just walking to a mic stand). No matter---they all performed admirably despite such strenuous staging and having to endure the occasional microphone screw-up.
Overall, Shankman's production of HAIR for the Hollywood Bowl is definitely a must-see event this weekend. Steeped in dazzling visuals, fun music, high-energy choreography, and a cast of talented, staggeringly gorgeous youngsters with giddiness coming out of every pore, this musical celebration of peace, love, and happiness deserves your attention.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
See more photos and clips of performances from Opening Night Here.
Performances of HAIR, featuring direction and choreography by Adam Shankman and musical direction by Lon Hoyt continue at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, August 2 (at 8:00 pm) and Sunday, August 3 (at 7:30 pm).
Tickets are still available, and may be purchased online at HollywoodBowl.com, by phone at 323-850-2000, in person at the Hollywood Bowl box office, or by calling Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000, and at all Ticketmaster outlets.