November 24, 2013

Let the Sun Shine In! Hair Comes to Risley Theatre

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This past weekend, the ‘Age of Aquarius’ was resurrected for students crammed into Risley’s sold out production of Hair. Over the course of the performance, directed by Tori Dahl, flowers, weed, LBJ, LSD, Vietnam and free love filled the room and brought the audience back to the 1960s.

Hair originally debuted in 1967, and despite being squarely placed in a specific era, it continues to be a powerhouse musical today. The musical centers around a hippie-tribe with a myriad of characters whose personalities shine through in solos and dance numbers. The show lacks a coherent plot, but the most clear storyline revolves around Claude (Elliott Casparian), the only tribe-member that is seen with his parents and at home. Claude must decide whether or not he is going to burn his draft card (which he appears increasingly hesitant to do), or follow his parent’s wishes — to enlist and fight in the Vietnam War.

In his role as Claude, Elliott Casparian really connects with the audience. Despite the ‘free-love’ tribe mentality, it becomes clear throughout the musical that Claude has more emotional feelings for the character Sheila played by Lauren Hunt. As proven in her solo, “Easy to be Hard,” about Sheila’s unrequited love for another tribe member, Berger (Teddy Billings), she had one of Hair’s more notably strong and beautiful voices.

What becomes evident in Hair is that it is not just a clear-cut celebration of the counterculture it depicts. Many of the characters express dissatisfaction at unrequited love (including the two examples mentioned earlier) that seems inevitable with the tribe’s emphasis on ‘free love’. All the while, the kids of Hair are sweet, friendly, playful and enraptured within the context of their real struggle against the American government and older generations. This is where the rest of the Tribe comes in. The scenery of the play is, at least relative to other musicals, unadorned — it boasts only a few carpets and flower baskets in the background. Instead, the tribe becomes a sort of active scenery. As the backdrop to the musical numbers, the tribe members play around with each other, smoke, joke and kiss, which all  greatly contribute to the overwhelming free-spiritedness of the musical. It honestly looked like every member of the tribe was having the time of their life which was incredibly infectious for the audience.

Others that deserve some recognition include Sean Doolittle, who played Woof; Teddy Billings, who played Berger; Emily Walker, who played the very pregnant Jeanie; Tré Calhoun, who played Hudson and Jillian Holch who played Claude’s mother. If I could, I would list everyone in that musical as they all did an incredible job.

One scene I feel obligated to mention for its historical significance is the one in which all of the tribe members, with the exception of Claude, get naked. Historically, this has been a scene of much controversy. Many productions have even removed it  — which I would argue is a greater perversion than any nude-scene, but I suppose that is a different story. I think Tori Dahl did a great job not only in his execution of the scene (and the entire musical, for that matter), but also for even including it. The scene, wherein tribe members sang “Where Do I Go?” while exposed, with the slight concealment of protest-signs, remained true to the musical as well as to the students performing and audience watching. Additionally, the song itself, as with all of the others, was great – it jumped back and forth between fun and serious tones, addressing both historical context and greater themes of the human condition. Credit goes to Geoff Peterson, the music director as well as the conductor for the orchestra.

The last moments of the play embody what it is all about. As the tribe sings the famous “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” they bring audience members up to dance with them on stage. Throughout the play the tribe interacted with the audience, bringing them into their tribe and struggle. Hair is fun, hopeful, and poignant all at the same time. Risley put on a fantastic production — and it is no surprise that every night was sold out.