In the late 60’s, my cousin John Toland and his partner Gilbert Lesser (famous for his Broadway Posters, including his most famous work with Equus), hung out in the artistic centers of New York City. They were there when Liza rode into Studio 54 on a white horse, and they were friends with many young artists who would become notable in the future. I remember a time when I was visiting John, and we were walking around the city. He told me one interesting story about how he would drop by a friend’s apartment, and hanging out there were Rod McKuen, James Rado and Gerome Ragni.
A fascinating collection of folks, but Rado and Ragni, along with composer Galt MacDermot, would go on to create the classic musical HAIR. I always wondered if they were talking about the show, when my cousin visited. With book and lyrics by Rado and Ragni, HAIR became a product of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s, along with the pleasures of psychedelic drug use, and creating anthems of the anti-Vietnam War peace movement.
The themes of HAIR continue to permeate our culture. We still have debates over drugs, freedom of choice, and whether War is the answer. Along with astute direction and vast vision, Patrick Ciamacco, the Artistic Director of Blank Canvas Theatre, has assembled a fearless, brave and energetic as hell cast to celebrate the themes and inspire audiences to think beyond the spectacle. And, spectacle it is, thanks in large part to the amazing projection work artistically incorporated into the show by Perren Hedderson. Ciamacco and Hedderson create some fascinating and stunning pictures that are able to create strong emotions, and that feels so good. Hair tells the story of the “tribe”, a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the “Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian life in New York City and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. Claude (an unrecognizable Scott Esposito), his good friend Berger (Nicky Belardo), their roommate Sheila (Jessie Cope Miller*) and their friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with their rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society. Ultimately, Claude must decide whether to resist the draft as his friends have done, or to succumb to the pressures of his parents (and conservative America) to serve in Vietnam, compromising his pacifistic principles and risking his life.
But the biggest enemy in this production, or at least on opening night, is not the Viet Cong or an irrational government plowing straight into a war that was not winnable, thus sending home veterans with Agent Orange in their system and PTSD, but the muddled vocal sound. I sat in the center section, and for the first 20 minutes of this show, it sounded like everyone was muffled, and it was simply hard to hear. Only when the belters were cranking, or the ensemble was singing, did I hear the fabulous come through. The orchestra seems to be coming through the same speaker as the vocals for the cast, and the cast is losing that speaker battle. I literally kept looking at the sound board operator to see if he was alive. Berger came on, it was like his mic was off, and the song “Donna” became a non-event. Anyone singing upstage, vocal is completely lost. And that is a shame, because there is a lot of good stuff happening.
First of all, 20 minutes before the show opening, the theatre was almost completely full. How exciting to have that kind of support on an opening night. Also wafting through the air was some good herb, but don’t worry, the legal kind. Must say, the mood was so set and ready to go. Leading the vocalists is Miller, who creates a powerful rendition of “Easy To Be Hard.” Every song she sings is blessed with striking vocals and emotional content. Neely Gevaart embodies Chrissy with a beautiful innocence as she weaves her love story with “Frank Mills.” Becca Frick gives some great face during her numbers, and scenes. “Air” is grand, and her “takes” on proceedings are priceless, as is the pregnancy smoking. Joanna May Hunkins is vocally in charge as she opens the show with “Aquarius” and never lets us go. Scott Esposito takes us on a grand journey as Claude. Strong voice, deft acting, and an arc that takes you with him, as he battles his demons and conformity. Tonya Broach raises the roof and lets it fly, even as Abe Lincoln. Nothing better than music from the soul, from a soul sister. Broach tears apart her songs like a pulled pork dinner, and there are shreds of fabulous everywhere. One of the major highlights of the show was “Black Boys” “White Boys.” These ladies took some names. Nicky Belardo as Berger certainly had the hippie movement down, but the sound issues really hurt me connecting with him. When there was clarity, I dug his character. However, I was confused when he wasn’t singing on the flag song. Devon Settles serving up some awesome Shaft inspired characterization as Hud. Once again, Trey Gilpin uses his falsetto as a weapon as Woof. Nice turn David Turner, as Margaret Mead.
The “Tribe” is excellent. This crowd is like “Hippies gone wild”, except you get a front row seat. Filled with energetic, talented, engrossing, and personable individuals, who are fearlessly embracing the material. Great vocal energy and movement. The tribe also includes Wesley Allen, Andrea Belser, Roderick Cardwell II, Venchise Glenn, Shannon Hubman, Jillian Mesaros, Kate Leigh Michalski, and Joe Virgo.,
On the Production Staff:
I really enjoyed Ciamacco’s vision. The use of projection work, and staging was excellent. Brad Wyner provided a kick ass band. Jessie Cope Miller as Choreographer had a blast with this show. Her moves were right on target. Inventive, fun, and just enough hippie sass to elevate the numbers. Thanks to costumer Luke Scattergood, costumes were groovy. Perren Hedderson killed it with his projection work. So many incredible visual treats to absorb and process. Excellent work. The ending is very powerful. Lighting Design by Cory Molner was ok, but I had noticed that the front light didn’t seem to be focused center, or the actors were missing their mark. Quite a few times, the actors had crescent moons on their faces. Also, at the final blackout, a light remained on the stage, which took away from the final moment. The contrast between the on stage projection work and actual lighting, made the non-projection scenes seem more hollow and bare. Ciamacco designed the Sound, and also, the Set Design, which worked great for the space, and offered perfect audience interaction decks.
This is a wild and important ride. The sound issues will be resolved. The musical offers great insight into the mindset of a generation that forced society and government to rise up to a challenge. The audiences will eat this show alive, and you want to make sure you have a seat at the table. Get your Hippie On!
*Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association.
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$15 General Admission