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The '60s Musical 'Hair' at Beck Center Ignites Fewer Sparks Than a Soggy Doobie 

click to enlarge stage-hair_001.jpg

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Given our current precarious political situation in Washington D.C., it might have been a good idea for Beck Center to resurrect the tribal love-rock musical Hair. It could have been empowering to once again see young people smoking ganja, dropping acid and giving the establishment their middle fingers. But all the "might haves" and "could haves" in the world cannot save a sinking production from itself.

On the plus side, the iconic material is all here, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado along with the indelible music by Galt MacDermot. But due to a number of curious decisions by director Victoria Bussert and her team of designers, a play that should have lots of sharp edges, wild hairs and surprising turns comes off as slick and smooth as a hardboiled egg. Welcome to Nair.

Let's be clear that, for the most part, the cast of this production is blameless. These talented young performers who are enrolled in the Baldwin Wallace University music theatre program give their all, bouncing and whooping on stage and up and down the aisles. And many of them have the pipes to do this music proud.

It all begins promisingly enough, with Veronica Otim as Dionne giving the leadoff song "Aquarius" a splendid turn. But then, like a glorious acid trip suddenly gone grody, the proceedings start spiraling downward. The first signal that something is awry is that the two lead male characters, Berger and Claude, don't register as they should, due either to casting or directorial errors.

As the de facto leader of the tribe, Berger should be mesmerizing and amiable as he moves amongst his fellow tribe members, and the audience, with his message of love for all. Instead, Jacob Slater as Berger has a hard and sinister edge, coming off like a long-haired version of the scary White House aide Stephen Miller. And as directed, most of Slater's physical gestures involve him displaying his lean torso in various states of undress, which does little to foster nuanced character development.

On the other hand, Claude is a young man searching for identity in a time of radical turmoil, thinking maybe he could recreate himself as a dude from across the pond in "Manchester, England." The challenging task for the actor, Chandler Smith, is to portray a young guy who feels invisible without disappearing on stage. Unfortunately, director Bussert doesn't succeed in finding the sweet spot for Smith, leaving the show without its two main character pillars.

Other male characters are around to provide shock value, but time has dimmed the "gasp!" factor for songs like "Colored Spade" and "Sodomy." Still, Warren Franklin as Hud and Sam Columbus as Woof try their best to amp up the attitude.

Eventually the women get their turn and Olivia Kaufmann as Shelia handles her solos, "I Believe in Love" and "Good Morning Starshine," with professional polish. The same is true for Courtney Hausman as Crissy, who sweetly croons "Frank Mills," and MacKenzie Wright who trills the anti-pollution tune "Air" as Jeanie. But these songs, as staged, don't feel as if they're part of the flow of the material.

Perhaps some of that has to do with the production design surrounding the actors. As they were in Bussert's staging of Hair more than a decade ago at Cain Park, and as presented here by scenic designer Jordan Janota, the multitude of actors (about 30) are often anchored around a large, low circular platform, responding to the activity mostly by waving their arms. Trouble is, they often look kind of bored.

And can you blame them? There is a medium-sized screen suspended above the stage, where images are shown intermittently, but it is inactive more than half the time. It's almost as if the technical aspects of this production had teleported back to the 1960s, when that kind of visual support was all that was possible. Where are the huge projections that fill the space and assault the senses, as Beck Center memorably did in their production of American Idiot? Where are the multiple screens that can dazzle the brain with volleys of images? Where is some out-of-the-box thinking for a show that crushed and shredded that box decades ago?

Instead, video art designer Kasumi is left to fill his isolated, floating rectangle with predictable visuals: some period film footage, psychedelic blobs of color, a few images of President Trump (?), and lots of repeated images stuttering across the screen. (Somebody please pass the shrooms, we're crashing hard here.) And the glow sticks that are deployed by the entire cast at the end give the moment all the counter culture vibe of the nightly closing ceremony at Disney World.

Victoria Bussert is a superbly talented director, having helmed a panoply of shows that have been praised to the heavens in this space and elsewhere. But this Hair goes wrong from the start and never seems able to get a grip on the essence of Hair's message, which hasn't changed. It's all about taking outrageous chances, not playing it safe and letting the chips fall where they may. The chips in this show do fall — but they end up stacked as neat, bland and manufactured as Pringles.

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