Love: a universal only rivaled by war. Both are intertwined at the heart of the tribal musical Hair amidst the political counterculture movement of the 1960s. Told through an ensemble focused assortment of rock songs, Hair follows a new and budding collective of America’s youth. Through protests and explorations into sexuality and drug use, the commune of hippies come to terms and fight back against established institutions of racial inequality, homophobia, and the troubling actions of our forefathers throughout the history of our country, all against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. When Claude (Brian Boehmke) receives his draft notice, he must decide the fate of his future: remaining with his friends in a directionless and open path or meeting societal expectations of the generation before him, coupled with the potential of death in a foreign land.
Due to the ensemble nature of the show, Hair typically boasts a larger cast size. Despite the limited area of the stage and a cast of nineteen, the atmosphere was that of an intimate gathering, reminiscent of a shag-carpeted Volkswagen bus. Tapestries and assorted flags further added color to the black painted walls of the theater. Sitting next to audience members in which the characters onstage only represented wild stories as well as those on the other end of the spectrum who have not only lived through it, but see themselves in the young adults onstage, the energy was palpable amongst clouds rolling off of cast member vape pens and invitations to join the tribe.
The story relayed through an amalgamation of songs with brief bits of dialogue interspersed throughout offered ample opportunity for individual cast members to display their talents. Championed by a solid leading cast, Alexis Loiselle especially stood out for her portrayal of freshman NYU activist Sheila Franklin. Offering a confident yet nuanced performance as reflected in “Easy to Be Hard,” I would like to commend her the most not for her singing or acting, but rather in her overall commitment to character. Engaging and present every moment onstage, Loiselle possesses an undeniable stage presence that captivated my eyes even when her character was merely in the background of the ongoing action.
Taylor Anderson (who plays the soulful Hud) similarly commands the stage with a nice blend of a direct and self-aware delivery in his messages. The boisterous, laid-back, high school drop-out stoner Berger (Ron Clawson) provides a strong presence throughout the show as well as Claude’s best friend and love interest to Sheila. With his finely controlled vocal skills and comedic moments, Clawson provides an entertaining performance, however, is a culprit of stretching the already long run-time through the slow delivery of a considerable portion of his dialogue.
Boehmke, the smart and charismatic Claude succeeds at capturing the innocence and struggles of youth, including the age-old question of “Who will I become?” among the turmoil of personal desires and looming expectations. Although I feel Boehmke excels in showcasing the drug-induced free spirit of the character, I wished to see a greater dive into the more serious moments of Claude’s predicament (a sentiment that extends to the cast and production as a whole), especially during the “trip sequence.” In spite of rooting for Boehmke, I never reached a point where I felt thoroughly compelled to mourn for Claude’s plight and there lacked a sobering moment that never overcame what I perceived to be a hollow climax to Claude’s journey.
Extending the scope of focus outward, other notable highlights include Mollie Rosol and Amy Cicci’s sweet rendition of “Frank Mills,” the ensemble focused “Oh Great God of Power,” the exuberant “White Boys” (led by Maya Fullard’s powerful singing behind the character of Dionne), and the harrowing “Three Five Zero Zero.” As previously mentioned, more serious and poignant moments were far and in-between (especially in comparison to the funny yet childish exaggeration of numerous sexual innuendos). However, when they surfaced, they were quite impactful. A perfect example of this rests with Tribe member Blair Allen’s brilliant dramatic reading of poetry before the equally resonating “Dead End.” Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning the emotional finale of “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In” where the sound of the closing chords radiated off the walls of the small theater.
The design elements (although limited) were effective overall. Edward Bostedo’s lighting design showcased great utilization of a limited lighting inventory with complimentary accent lighting and well-placed chase sequences. The use of fog/haze allowed for a beautiful application of lighting as a means to fill the volume of the acting area which was particularly striking in the Act I finale “Where Do I Go?” One note, however, rests with the loss of illumination on faces at times with the slightly heavy focus on backlight.
The unsung heroes of the show rest with the incredibly capable four-man orchestra, especially the stylings of lead guitarist Ian Redman and the improvisational textures contributed by pianist Kevin Milliken.
While there were technical issues between both lighting and sound (with especial note toward the inconsistency and need of a handheld microphone in such a small space beyond the function as solely a prop), both the crew and cast handled these issues with grace. Regarding the cast and production as a whole, I wholeheartedly believe that their strongest asset was the evident bonds and trust they shared as friends and as a pseudo-family.
Hair is a timeless classic as relevant now as it was in its 1967 premiere. If you have the time, grab your beads and tie-dye to see this fun and enjoyable show. While there is a lot left to be desired concerning production value and a greater comprehension of the material by the cast, McKeesport Little Theatre’s production offers the marvelous opportunity to see passionate actors refine their craft.
McKeesport Little Theatre’s production of Hair runs now through November 11th. For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/events/20987
Categories: Archived Reviews