The show: "Hair" at West Hartford's Playhouse on Park
First impressions: The key question in any production of this "American tribal love-rock musical" from 1967 is whether a cast believably connects with the spirit of the show with any authenticity or will it be an exercise in dress-up. Some fun, flashes of fringe and tie-dye but nothing more.
The ensemble at Playhouse on Park does a credible job in portraying this group of young people in the '60s breaking free from the constrictions and conventions of earlier generations as they try to end war, promote peace, love their neighbors and change the world. And get high, too.
So what's the story?: There's very little narrative in this free-form, stream-of-altered-conscious show that runs more than 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The musical follows a community of young people as they revel in their own spacey counter-culture against The Establishment and Military Industrial Complex.
Berger (Ryan Connolly) is the frisky, charismatic leader of the group of protesting, love-loving hippies, and Claude (Michael J. Walker) is the tribe's sweet and sensitive soul. When Claude gets his draft notice he must decide whether to accept his marching orders or to burn his draft card.
There's a bit of subplot with a triangle with Claude and Berger and activist Sheila (Tara Novie). There's also a brief scene with parents, and another with Margaret Mead (Jose Plaza, with astounding vocals in "My Conviction").
Oh, there's a conflcit over a yellow shirt, too.
Much of the second act is devoted to Claude's long bad drug "trip" before the inevitable ritualistic resolution is played out.
A few other tribal members have a blush of character, such the libidinous Woof (Kevin Barlowski), flower child Crissy (Lauren Monteleone) and dynamic Dionne (Kristen Jeter, who starts the show off with a glorious "Aquarius").
But the rest merge into a generic grouping, wonderfully costumed by Demara Cabrera.
Er, do they take their clothes off?: Now that's what you really wanted to know first, isn't it? Well, yes they do and it's done briefly and statically under low lighting and far upstage in a huddle.
But with "Hair," its about the clan of kids and their music, which is abundant and tuneful and for the most part well-sung, backed by a strong eight-piece band. The cast, made up mostly fresh and newbie performers (Connolly and Walker are the Equity pros), fit nicely into the anti-slick construct.
How does the show hold up after more than 45 years?: That's a trickier question. It goes on much too long, the "far-out" dialogue is sometimes amusing, but often ouch-worthy, the social context of the previous era is missing. But that's not why audiences connect or don't with "Hair."
It's in the spirit of the ensemble, the dynamic of the staging, the power of Galt MacDermot's music and the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and on most of these measuring points, the Playhouse production works well.
Walker is boyishly appealing, both defiant and vulnerable, and does well with his big songs "Manchester, England," "I Got Life" and "Where Do I Go?" Connolly is more crazy sidekick trying to be leader of the pack — think Jack Black in "School of Rock" — but is mighty game in his efforts — and he delivers the title song with wonderful bravado.
Novie's Sheila tends to over dramatize her big numbers, "Easy to Be Hard," and "Good Morning Starshine," but she has a fine voice. MacBeth offers a lovely "Frank Mills." And Jeter just nails every note she sings.
Director Sean Harris keeps an exuberant and seemingly spontaneous spirit going for his 20-member cast, though nuance and clarity are sometimes missed. Choreographer Darlene Zoller keeps the ensemble on the go with an infinite variety of movements, athletics and dances, without it being too stagy. The overall production is another fine accomplishment for the small theater company.
Reservations?: In other productions — even the Milos Forman film — though the story ends on a downer note, it still manages to offer a spirited Age of Aquarius uplift at the end. This version lacks that transition and saves the upbeat until the curtain call.
Who will like it?: Old hippies. Young hippies.
Who won't?: The Establishment. Wait a minute, the establishment is made up of a lot of those former hippies.
For the kids?: Teens should respond to the music and its sweet and trippy rebel spirit. But some kids might find it too incredulous that their grandparents ever acted that way.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: It's still a musical theater high.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Once again, the folks at the Playhouse know how to pick perfectly suitable musical projects that's just right for their intimate, scruffy space. Next up: "Passing Strange."
The basics: The show plays Playhouse on Park at 244 Park St. in West Hartford through July 19. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $45. (There is no performance on July 4.) Information at playhouseonpark.org and 860-523-5900, ext.10.