March 26, 2014 | by Patrick Folliard
Flower power revival
Hair, Inez Nassara, theater, Keegan, gay news, Washington Blade

Inez Nassara and company in ‘Hair.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Keegan)

‘Hair’

Through April 27

Keegan Theatre

1742 Church Street, NW

$37-42

703-892-0202

Keegantheatre.com

With Keegan Theatre’s Helen Hayes Award-winning production of the Broadway musical “Rent” several seasons ago, company artistic director Mark A. Rhea and his wife Susan Marie Rhea rendered a glimpse into New York City bohemia in the ‘90s, insightfully tackling the show’s big issues like homelessness, AIDS and art. Now the co-directors have turned their attention to another era with their version of “Hair,” the groundbreaking rock musical also set in Manhattan but in the turbulent late ‘60s.

When “Hair” premiered in New York in 1967, its depiction of a counterculture youth was novel. Never before had bisexuality, interracial relationships, drug use, full frontal nudity and a strong antiwar sentiment been set to a beat you could dance to. Times were changing. Though less shocking today, “Hair” remains relevant, and so does Galt MacDermot’s timeless music (with book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragini): a score that includes “Aquarius”/“Let the Sun Shine In,” “Hair” and “Easy To Be Hard” doesn’t languish on the shelf.

“Hair” is shaped more by a mood than a storyline. The plot is simple: A tribe of hippie kids pass the time dropping acid and making love in New York City. They’re content. But then Uncle Sam upsets the adolescent idyll with invitations to Vietnam, and suddenly the band of merrymakers is forced to make a decision: burn your draft card or go to war.

The show’s central relationship is a bisexual love triangle involving the tribe’s puckish leader Berger (Josh Sticklin), Sheila (Carolina Wolfson) a socially conscience college freshman, and Claude (played with heartrending honesty by Paul Scanlan), a young guy from working class Queens with a faux British accent who’s working out where he fits in Vietnam-era America. The original “Hair” featured a new kind of physical affection between men, opening up the way for future onstage portrayals of relationships and sexuality.

James Rado, co-creator and original star of “Hair,” has commented on his relationship with collaborator Gerome Ragni who died in 1991. Their relationship inspired the characters of Claude and Berger.

Like youth itself, “Hair” is filled with anguish and joy. Overall, the directors have embraced the darker side of the show. Set designer Matthew Keenan has followed suit opting for dreary realism with a squat-inspired two-tiered functional set. An old made over washing machine makes a tired salute to flower power.

Keegan’s ensemble-generated “Hair” features a full voiced, 20-plus person cast accompanied by an onstage nine-piece orchestra led by Jake Null. It’s a busy stage. While Rachel Leigh Dolan’s choreography celebrates the fun of communal living and a well-attended protest, it also functions as crowd control.

Made up mostly of diverse local talent, the show’s full-voiced cast is young and energetic. And though they look at home in their fringy vests, striped bell bottoms, granny skirts (compliments of costume designer Chelsey Schuller) and wild hair, they surely had to be familiarized with references to Spiro Agnew and others. While some of the acting, especially comedy, is lacking, their singing is largely on point — they do the familiar songs justice. Standouts include Jade Jones who demonstrates a big soulful voice and comedic flair. And Christian Montgomery is terrific as Woof, a gay hippie boy who insists he’s straight yet carries a very public torch for Mick Jagger.

As with Keegan’s previous musicals, “Hair” offers a solid opportunity to see the work of area actors early in their careers.

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