‘Hair’ at Rochester, NY’s Shakespeare Festival Theatre: Stirring & Effective

Herbert Simpson
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Joe Chisholm (Berger), Joshua Carey (Woof,) in Geva Theatre Center’s production of ‘Hair.’ All Photos: Ron Heerkens Jr // Goat Factory Media Entertainment

I wondered how the old love-rock musical would play these days for an audience of younger folk unfamiliar with Hippie rebellion , flower children,‘60s rock music, and a more feminine long-hair style and slovenly tie-dyed clothes-styles. For that matter, I wasn’t so sure how the now-rather-old folks, mostly more establishment, would regard it.  I saw its original New York Public Theatre production and Broadway Premiere, and loved most of the many others I saw in many places; so I knew that all they had to do was start singing “Let the Sun Shine In”, and I’d be in tears.

But this is another age.  We’ve got dark-skinned Hispanics rapping about writing the Declaration of Independence and teenagers with more hair on their chins than I have on my head. When I moved to Northwest New York State two years before “Hair” opened, there was a billboard on the highway with a picture of a Hippie with shoulder-length hair and a caption that read, “Beautify America: Get A Haircut!”

I needn’t have worried.  Geva Theatre has been specializing in high-powered, sold-out shows recently, and Melissa Rain Anderson’s fast-paced, high-spirited, production makes its intermission feel like much needed rest and recuperation. Even us old folks were jumping up and cheering noisily.  I did think that some of the songs and clever bits got short shrift and deserved more emphasis on their individual excellences, but the young cast gave the finale a truly passionate, beautifully sung performance that had the audience up on their feet and screaming approval.

It’s a complex show, and there are several weaknesses along the way, but enough winning compensations to overcome them.  Emphasizing the vitality of the show, director Anderson, masterful music director Don Kott, and showy choreographer Liz Ramos seemed to me to rush past some explorations of the individual oddities and excellences of the separate songs and episodes. The almost snarky, ironic humor of “Black Boys” and “White Boys” and “Sodomy” is inescapable, but this show really has about thirty songs  deserving individual attention.  Berger, who introduces and carries much of the show, seemed awkwardly understated on opening night. The hilarious role and song by “Margaret Mead” got amateurish treatment, perhaps due to nervousness over having the show’s most blatant full frontal nudity.  And a beautiful blonde woman performed with charm and verve and winning energy but was vocally downright screechy.  No matter. The whole cast’s obvious affectionate involvement is irresistible.

Left: Cherise Thomas (Dionne) and the cast of Geva Theatre Center’s production of Hair. 

And, as usual, there are “finds” in the cast. (The notes mention that the original Broadway production at one time or another introduced Diane Keaton, Melba Moore, Ben Vereen, Keith Carradine and Meat Loaf.)  Dynamic, ingratiating performers include Joshua Carey;  Jamal Shuriah; the lovely, Cherise Thomas who carries the opening, closing songs and several others; and Marina Nichols who is delicious in my favorite song in the show, “Frank Mills.”  A real discovery for me is Chiara Trentalange, who plays Sheila. Her voice is not unusually tonally lovely, but she uses it with such artistry that the singing somehow is; and she acts and sings with winning interpretive skill and variety.

Right: Michael Burrell (Claude) and the cast of Geva Theatre Center’s production of ‘Hair.’

And Michael Burrell, playing Claude, understandably stops the show with every song and scene, impressively singing and interpreting each development in Claude’s journey from young cynical sensualist toward the show’s ultimate martyrdom in the Viet Nam war.  Each part of his performance seems to grow in artistic skill.  This is a young performer to keep track of.

Left: The cast of ‘Hair.’

Geva’s artists have created an unusually stirring and effective production [though I found the witty period costumes more unappealing than usual].  And this is going to be a tough ticket to get. Unfortunately, it’s the first show of the crowded season, and there’s no time to extend it before the next show is due.  Maybe a rich pothead will try to get it going somewhere else.

By Herb Simpson, Contributing Writer

Hair

Through October 6, 2018

Theater: Geva Theatre – Mainstage

Theater Address:  75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester, NY 14607

Phone: 585-232-1366

Author: Book & Lyrics by Gerome Ragni & James Rado

Music by Galt MacDermot

Director: Melissa Rain Anderson

Music Director: Don Kott

Choreographer: Liz Ramos

Cast: David Andre, Gabrielle Beckford, Katelyn Brooks, Michael Burrell, Joshua Carey, Joe Chisholm, Kevin Curtis, Brett Hammes, Mary Katherine Harris, Jacob Hoffman, Manna Nichols, Xavier Reyes, Tavia Rivee, Jamal Shuriah, Cherise Thomas, Chiara Trentalange, Rocky Vega, Lawson Young

Production:

Scenic Designer : Adam Koch

Costume Designer : Kevin Copenhaver

Lighting Designer : Brian J. Lilienthal

Sound Designer : Danny Erdberg

Wig Designer: Bettie O. Rogers

Dramaturg: Jenni Werner

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