It’s easy to predict that once word of Bob Harbin’s sublime production of “Hair” spreads, tickets for the show, which opened Saturday at the Athenaeum, will become a hot commodity for theater goers. That’s because Harbin has simply outdone himself through his spot on direction, keen eye for talent, and a first rate creative team of collaborators. All of those elements combined to make his version of the groundbreaking rock musical the sure-fire hit it is destined to become as it continues its run weekends through July 20. Produced by Harbin’s production company BOBDIREX, “Hair” is presented in partnership with the Athenaeum Docent Club, which is associated with the historic venue located off Mass Ave. in downtown Indianapolis’ arts and theater district.
James Rado and Gerome Ragni wrote the book and Galt MacDermont composed the music for “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” that opened on Broadway in 1968 and was successfully revived in 2009 when it won a Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
“Hair” tells the story of a “tribe” of disaffected and idealistic young people who wear long hair as a political statement and are representative of the “hippies” who flourished during the ‘60s. In this scenario, Claude, his good friend Berger, their roommate Sheila and their friends embrace a counterculture which emphasizes love, sexual freedom, concern for the environment, racial and gender equality and opposition to the Vietnam War as they simultaneously rebel against their conservative parents and society. In the end, Claude is forced to make a choice between resisting the draft as his friends have chosen to or serve in Vietnam, which would mean selling out his anti-war ideals and risk losing his life.
Harbin, who was once an L.A. casting director, has not lost his masterful touch as evidenced by the high caliber of talent he selected to play the lively characters of the “tribe” which consists of Lincoln Slentz (Berger), Anthony Snitker (Claude), Claire Wilcher (Sheila), Craig Underwood (Mead & Dad), Erin Cohenour (Jeanie), Rashida Bonds (Dionne), Ramon Hutchins (Steve), Paige Scott (Mom), Dejaun Jackson (Hud), Audrey Brinkley (Crissy) and Tyler Ostrander (Woof).
Other members of the company are Ben Angelo, Tori Gowdy, Nick Heskett, John Kern, Tawj Monroe, Julie O’Mara, Katie Rae, Jenny Reber, Ashley Saunders, April Armstrong Thomas and Arianne Villareal.
Slentz, who exhibits a natural ease on stage and a penchant for comedy, was especially endearing and likeable as the free-spirited “psychedelic teddy bear” Berger.
Snitker was entirely believable as the romantic, yet conflicted Claude who struggles with society’s expectations which are in opposition to his own pacifist beliefs. After the scene in which Claude changes his mind about burning his draft card, Snitker’s passionate rendition of “Where Do I Go” was one of the show’s most touching moments.
Wilcher gave her usual charismatic performance as political activist and Berger’s girlfriend Shelia, showing off her characteristic potent vocals when she sang “Easy to be Hard”, a lament during which her character expresses her disappointment at the callous treatment she receives from Berger.
Craig Underwood stood out in a memorable drag performance, rivaling that of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ in the film “Some Like It Hot”, playing a tourist lady who the tribe calls Margaret Mead. Singing “My Conviction” in reaction to the tribe explaining the significance of their long locks in “Hair”, Underwood, utilizing a remarkable falsetto voice, milked the song for all it was worth, impressing the crowd with his flawless female impersonation.
Another captivating moment took place when the characters of Tyler Ostrander as Woof and tribe member Tori Gowdy sang the plaintive "What a Piece of Work is Man," with lyrics from Shakespeare's "Hamlet", while standing amongst the victims of violence laying all about them.
There were so many individual performances that spoke to the high level of dramatic and vocal abilities and skills of this uniformly solid cast. That meant that there were numerous opportunities to observe and enjoy the performers as they engaged in and executed the playful tribe’s antics staged by Kenny Shepard, who captured the joyous exuberance of these love children, who were in constant motion, utilizing movement that looked spontaneous and random but was, in reality, seamlessly choreographed.
Speaking of seamless — another major factor in the success of this production was Trevor Fanning’s exceptional music direction that accounted for the beautiful blend of voices and the professional quality of the nine piece Mass Ave. Electric Sunflower Band which did fine justice to MacDermont’s trailblazing rock score.
Ben Asaykwee’s set, Matthew Cunningham’s light design, Michael Colter’s sound engineering, Jenn Davis’s costumes, Daniel Klinger’s hair and make-up and Paul Nicely's props also contributed to completing Harbin’s compelling illusion and transporting the audience back to one of history’s most turbulent eras that still impacts us today.
On opening night there were some sound and lighting glitches but no doubt they should be smoothed out during the course of the run. Also, music coming from the outdoor Biergarten next door could be heard during the performance. Though distracting, and annoying at best, it was not enough to ruin the performance. Still, it's too bad that such a fine show has to compete with its noisy nieghbor.
Even by today’s standards, “Hair” is still very provocative. With its profanity, glorification of sexual freedom, drug use and nudity (though here it is not in the least gratuitous), “Hair” still has the power to shock and offend. At the same time it reminds us that though many of the societal ills addressed in “Hair” are still with us, love and peace will always be a worthwhile pursuit for those who seek a better world. It's in that spirit that "Hair" continues to uplift much as it did when it first appeared.
“Hair” evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. and the Sunday matinees are at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 with discounts for seniors and groups of 20 or more. Because of its subject matter, language and brief nudity, “Hair” is only for mature audiences. For tickets and more information visit www.bobdirex.com.
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