You know the counterculture is truly dead and buried when a community theater in Elm Grove does Hair. What’s heartening is how well the free-love, antiwar classic with the catchy tunes holds up.
This Sunset Playhouse production has it’s share of problems, not least getting suburban Midwestern kids to grok the mind-set of draft-age New York radicals. You can’t really expect authenticity when fire laws prohibit even the burning of a prop draft card. In fact, there’s not a hint of any kind of smoke onstage; a kid might come away from this show thinking that a LSD trip was sort of like an overdose of strong cough syrup, and the sexual revolution mainly involved lots of hugging. In this cautious, sanitized production, the infamous act one closing nude scene is naturally out of the question.
Director Ray Jivoff and choreographer Sarah Wilbur Price offer an unimaginative, static staging that makes the anarchic tribe often resemble an obedient scout troop in bad wigs, politely waiting for their solos. Music director Donna Kummer, while keeping her ensemble on key, often lags way behind the adrenaline-pumping tempo that fueled the revolution, and J. Michael Desper’s sturdy set of wooden scaffolding gives the impression that the hippie movement took place in an unfinished barn rather than the urban jungle.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, almost 40 years later, the play’s Looney Tunes surrealism, collage structure and modernist poetry still have the power to shock and move us. There’s something wryly poignant about music theater majors proclaiming the evils of American imperialism in front of an audience of middle-aged Moms and Dads who might well have voted for John McCain (not to mention that the black population onstage stage probably outnumbers the entire township). Indeed, the good people of Elm Grove weren’t at all sure how to take the show– the intermission lobby was stone silent as people tried to formulate acceptable responses.
And while there’s no visible evidence (for better or worse) that any of the young cast has any idea what dropping acid was like, they do clearly understand the goofy idealism, urgency, passion for life, and uncertainty of growing up in a world where people their age have been dying in pointless American wars as long as they’ve been old enough to know about it. They deliver honest performances, rather than the caricatures or minstrelsy it could have easily been. Ryan Stajmiger, as the recently-drafted Claude, carries the show’s main plot, delivering his songs with bell-like clarity and conviction. Zach Woods brings a fine metallic twang to the hippie leader Berger, and Ashley Levells does the appropriate vocal heavy lifting in Aquarius. The 60s was a boy’s club, dominated by the draft, but Hayley Sanfillippo as the very pregnant Jeanne and Katherine Duffy as the stood-up Chrissy tell the woman’s side of the story, Duffy channeling Belle and Sebastian with her wonderfully sweet voice. Hanna Gaffney plays future Hilary Clinton supporter Sheila with grace and intelligence.
As the show’s powerful message gathers momentum, the audience is clearly moved.
Rather than making their protests look like pathetic, stoned gestures, the talented cast delivers the emotional core and present value of the show– a generation of youth pleading to their parents for a better world. That hits home.
Hair plays through August 8. Tickets are $20 with rush discounts available