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Review: The Age of Aquarius is back in Chester Theatre Group's 'Hair'

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Hair-live musical play

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"Hair," the landmark 1967 anti-war rock musical, opened Thursday night at the Black River Playhouse, home of the Chester Theatre Group, with an impressive, high energy, production directed by Alan Van Antwerp. The large, excellent cast (21) sing and dance in all corners and levels of this intimate space with the all the enthusiasm this play that introduced us to The Age of Aquarius requires.

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The play, rarely performed in recent years, is basically plotless with thirty-three musical numbers running non-stop. Most of the songs are joyous, with subjects and language that were shocking for 1960s audiences. Several of the songs have become classics; "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine," and "Let the Sunshine In." "Aquarius" is considered the iconic, powerful uplifting anthem for the decade.

In case you were not around during the 1960's...it was one of the most turbulent periods in the history of the US. The decade included the assassinations of President Kennedy (on live television) his brother Bobby, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the moon landing, the shift in popular music led by the Beatles, and, what was at the time the most unpopular US war, the Vietnam War. It was the first war, with its horrific scenes of death and destruction, that played out on the evening news. It divided the nation and served to create a generation of disillusioned, anti-establishment, young people calling for peace and love while evading the military draft.

Their bizarre lifestyle centered on sex and drugs, unconventional clothes, and long hair earned them the title of 'Hippies.' In fact, many kids were being kicked out of school for growing their hair long! The original Broadway production broke new ground with a racially integrated cast and full frontal nudity at the end of Act One (no nudity in this production).

The story centers on a group, or "tribe," all living this hippie, bohemian life in New York City. The main characters are Claude, a Vietnam war draftee, who befriends the tribe on his way to the army induction center, and Berger, the extroverted primary voice of the tribe who introduces Claude to their counter cultural lifestyle and attempts to pressure him to resist the draft.

The supporting cast are all very good, with particular standout performances from Lindsay Braverman as Sheila. She beautifully nails her first act solo "I Believe In Love;" Ashley Leone has a commanding presence as Dionne; Marisa Garrity as Chrissy, she has a fine solo "Frank Mills;" Raven Dunbar as Jeannie; Melrose Johnson as Hud has fun with "Three-Five-Zero-Zero;" and Shane Long as Woof, has the attention grabber "Sodomy;"

But, back to Claude and Berger, both clearly played by superior, experienced, performers. Berger is played with great style and good 'ole "gusto," with or without his trousers, by Chris Abbott. Brian Hall, who impressed us in CTG's recent production of "Urinetown," and recently made his professional debut in Florida, is outstanding as Claude. Both men do it all...sing, dance and act.

The other "tribe' members: Hannah Schroeder; Nicole Boscarino; Laura Mullaney; Anthony Bruno; Chris Frazier; Steven Munoz; Ryan Mark; Caroline Hatcher; Kelly Miller; Chris Ciavatta; Mike Rossi; Dillon Feldman and Ericka Traugh.

Special credit is in order for choreographer Megan Ferentinos and music director Jack Bender. Director Alan Van Antwerp production staff includes: producer Cindy Alexander; stage manager and lighting Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; audio and visual effects (including video projection) Jeff Knapp; costume design Vince Esoldi; wardrobe and props Gina Schwenck, Barbara Henderson and Trish Lum; wigs,hair and makeup Gina Stevens; scenic construction Kevern Cameron and Stephen Catron (set design); scenic painting and design Claire Symanski.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio July 3, 2014

The remaining performance dates are 8 pm Saturday, July 5 (TONIGHT), 12 and 19; Thursday, July 10 and 17; Friday, July 11 and 18; 2 pm Sunday 6, 13 and 20.

TICKETS: $25.00 Senior citizens 65+ and students under 18: $23.00. Call the box office at 908-879-7304 or purchase tickets on-line at www.chestertheatregroup.org.

The Black River Playhouse is located at 54 Grove Street, at the corner of Maple Ave., in Chester, NJ.

Some "Hair" background: Book & Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado, Music by Galt MacDermot. It was conceived by actors Rado and Ragni. They began writing "Hair" together in late 1964. The main characters were autobiographical, with Rado's Claude being a pensive romantic and Ragni's Berger an extrovert. Rado described the inspiration for Hair as "a combination of some characters we met in the streets, people we knew and our own imaginations

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