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BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park Closes Season With a HAIR Do

HAIR
Theatre: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Street, West Hartford, CT
Production: Book and Lyrics by George Ragni and James Rado; Music by Galt MacDermot; Directed by Sean Harris; Choreography by Darlene Zoller; Scenic Design and Costume Design by Demara Cabrera; Lighting Design by Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Design by Demara Cabrera; Music Direction by Emmett Drake and Collin Britt. Extended through July 26; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $32.50 to $45.00, visit www.playhouseonpark.org.

Playhouse on Park's sixth season winds down much the way it began, with a show seemingly not possible for this small company with big dreams to pull off. As with their season opener, Angels in America - Millennium Approaches, their season closer Hair is directed by Sean Harris. This time, however, he is aided and abetted by his Co-Artistic Director and Choreographer Darlene Zoller. Is the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical an equal artistic bookend to A Gay Fantasia on National Themes? It depends on which act.

Much like Angels in America, Hair is a groundbreaker of its time. Where dramatically Kushner's drama remains a powerful indictment of Reagan-era indifference toward the AIDS epidemic (among about a dozen other things), Hair is a more curious entity. When the musical premiered in the 1960s, the hippie love-in was very much of its moment and its condemnation of the Vietnam War incredibly bold, particularly for venerable old Broadway. The Great White Way had, up until that point, never let its freak flag fly in such a fashion. Youth culture's delirious embrace of sex, drugs, and rock and roll astonished audiences. The cast wasn't playing hippies. They were hippies.

Almost 50 years old now (with initial drafts of the musical starting in 1964), Hair can be seen as a nostalgia exercise for the "flower power" era. At the same time, our nation has spent much of 2015 wringing its hands over matters of race, gender, sexuality, and violence. In that sense, Hair still very much has a place at the table and maintains its power to shock. Act I, particularly of Playhouse on Park's production, embraces the 60s aesthetic of counter culture. In that sense, it has a goofy likeability while feeling like musical theatre students playing at being hippies. Act II, on the other hand, becomes increasingly darker, trippier, and more emotional. The second half of Hair is the substantial bookend to a season that started with a bang with Angels.

The "tribe" as the cast is called is appropriately youthful and energetic. Ryan Connolly, the de-facto leader of the gang, makes for a manic, annoying Berger. This may sound like a criticism when in fact, the character of Berger is pretty much manic and annoying (by my standards, anyway). He is everything that would horrify a 1950s-bred parent. Connolly taps into the character's sexual vibrancy, humor, and runaway id. Michael J. Walker plays Claude, the peaceful lover, a yin to Berger's vibrant yang. I found Walker's hippy a little too dippy at first, but he gains traction in the searing second act. Walker has a wonderful singing voice brought devastatingly to bear in the show's finale.

By and large, the women in the cast are the superior singers and performers, particularly Kristen Jeter's Dionne (who opens the show with a glorious "Aquarius"), Tara Novie's Sheila (who brings down the house with a powerful "Easy to Be Hard"), and Lauren Monteleone's Crissy (charmingly performing "Frank Mills"). The female ensemble vocally overpowers the weaker male ensemble, with the exception of Oludare Bernard, who knocks it out of the park with his performance as Hud (normally played by Kameren Neal), and Jose Plaza who kills with falsetto vocal acrobatics.

The physical elements for this production are fascinating, primarily due to Demara Cabrera, who designed both the set and the costumes. The Tompkins Square Park setting is a cross between a cage, with its chain link fencing, and a playground. The overgrown children of the cast, alternately gamboling, dancing, screwing, and dying on this playscape, reflects the gritty feel of kids on the run in New York, particularly as the show moves from innocence to tragedy. Cabrera wisely leaves the majority of the stage space for the tribe to indulge in Zoller's organic, energetic, sexy and thoughtful choreography. The costumes eschew a rainbow, sunshiny 60s feel for a more muted pallet of earth tones and blues.

The lighting by Aaron Hochheiser is pitch-perfect as it goes from warm feel-good hues in Act 1 to the second act's psychedelic trip. The only major design flaw is the sound with the singers often struggling to be heard over the tight orchestra and each other. This renders a lot of the tricky lyrics unintelligible.

Harris' direction in Act 1 seems a bit all over the place, perhaps fitting for a semi-plotless, feel-good "be-in." Tender scenes between Claude and Jeanie tend to get buried amid the hippy hubbub and Berger threatens to schtick it to the audience a little too much. Harris' strength as a dramatic director comes full bore in the second act when the stakes are ratcheted up and the thinly drawn characters in the first act have something to actually do other than, you know, be hippies. Songs that I never really cared for in past productions became amazingly potent (particularly "Walking in Space," "Abie Baby" and "Three Five Zero Zero") and the final "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sun Shine In)" is out and out devastation, as opposed to an upbeat anthem to a brighter tomorrow.

The most exciting facet of Playhouse on Park's Hair is that the production is uniquely its own. Having complained of artistic plagiarism in previous reviews of PoP's now traditional season-closing musical, Harris and Zoller have done their own thing. As Diane Paulus' landmark remake of Hair is fresh in our memories, PoP's choice to follow their own muse makes for a much more passionate and artistically significant endeavor. Bravo on taking another step forward to being a major player on the Connecticut stage.

HAIR cast photo by Tibor Zoller.



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From This Author - Jacques Lamarre

Jacques Lamarre has worked in theatre for over 20 years. As a Public Relations/Marketing professional, he held positions at Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks Hartford and Yale (read more...)