THEATER REVIEW: “Hair” @ Kent State University by Roy Berko

Through Sun 11/10

On May 4, 1970, over a period of 13 seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired upon Kent State University unarmed students by the Ohio State National Guard. The students and their supporters were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by the United States, part of the ill-conceived Vietnam incursion. Forever after to be known as “The Kent State Massacre,” the attack killed four and wounded nine others.

It is entirely appropriate, as the university prepares for the 50th anniversary of that event, they do so with the staging of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.

James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s hippie/counterculture/sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway shocked the nation with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage and irreverence for the American flag. It is a perfect example of theater representing the era from which it comes and how to teach history through the arts.

Hair is often referred to as the ending bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway. The first true book musical, Oklahoma (1943), set the format for what is known as the Great American Musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon.

The script is time-specific, furthering the concept that theater is representative of the era from which it comes. Hair is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and polyester bell bottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war.

Hair tells the tale of friends, Claude, Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe,” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives with rebellion against the Vietnam War and draft conscription. It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart. Even the theatrical staging of the original was a change from tradition, with scaffolds to climb, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles. This was definitely not OklahomaMy Fair Lady or Annie Get Your Gun.

The score is eclectic and electric. “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state. “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs. “Colored Spade,” “Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center. “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion. “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era. “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And on and on it goes, confronting realities, challenging what was, and making a case for what might be.

The KSU production is brilliantly and intelligently directed by Terri Kent. It wisely does not try to bring the story to the 2000s, but emphasizes it as a historical piece of reality, complete with its Kent State connection, which is creatively developed with pictures of the campus massacre emblazoned on a parachute, similar to those that were used to drop the U.S. military forces onto foreign soil.

Choreographer Martin Céspedes has re-imagined the original movements to make the cast into a dancing, singing, story-telling machine. The performers respond to the staging with enthusiasm and power. His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects. It’s exciting to see dancers on stage, well-instructed and inspired.

The vocalizations are outstanding. The choral sounds are full and engulfing. It’s impressive that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality. They weren’t acting, they were being.

The cast is universally excellent. Ben Richardson-Piché (Woof) nails “Sodomy.” The strong-voiced Brian Hirsch (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs, and textures his role with wise performance choices. “Eyes Look Your Last,” led by Sami Kennett (Sheila), was transfixing. Lexie DiLucia (Jeanie), Hallie Walker (Crissy), and Sy Thomas (Dionne) nicely interpret “Air,” singing meanings, not just words. Walker is child-like, endearing in her rendition of “Frank Mills,” while Aylah Mendenhall wails with delight throughout.

Music director Jennifer Korecki and her orchestra are note-perfect, setting the right rock tone. The technical aspects, especially the visual images and lighting, enhanced the production.

I dare you to sit impassively through the last scene without eyes welling, thinking back to the slaughter of innocents on the KSU campus, and not wanting to rage against war, especially the Vietnam debacle.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: This production will make you aware of the changes that took place in this country by the reactions to the Vietnam War, including bringing about the Kent State Massacre, while illustrating that theater can not only entertain, but shine a mirror on history. See Hair? Absolutely! It is a powerful and well-conceived production. The Terri Kent-Martin Cespedes combination, as was evidenced in Man of La Mancha at Porthouse this summer, sparkles again. 

Hair is scheduled to run at Kent State University through Sun 11/10. For tickets and information call 330-672-ARTS or go to kent.ed/theatredance

[Written by Roy Berko, member; American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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