HAIR lights up Burning Coal Theatre


By Stephen Cordell Arts & Entertainment September 10, 2009

From 1957-1973, during a period of peacetime draft, the United States was involved in a military “action” in Southeast Asia. Though never officially declared, this “action” became known as the Vietnam War.

According to the National Archives, our nation lost 58,193 military personnel during that time. The wounded totaled 153,303. The vast majority of these were young men between the ages of 18 and 26.

This was a war that was ill advised, and one that our nation was ultimately unable to win. The relentless drumbeat of war dead – televised day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year – took its toll on the American psyche, particularly on its youth, and those young men of draft age and their friends.

Burning Coal Theatre Company’s well-crafted production of “Hair” (“The American Tribal Love Rock Musical”) which debuted on Broadway in 1968, brings to life that time of escape by some into the hippy counterculture movement (“drugs, sex, rock & roll”), the daily water torture of American body count, and the escalating urge to grasp the predominantly white male 50-something establishment by their collective lapels and shake some sense into them. For young people then, the percentage of their peers earmarked for canon fodder appeared to be growing, not diminishing, with no end in sight.

It seemed to many that our nation needed a new way of connecting: to the planet, to ourselves, and to each other. We needed to manifest this change through every means possible, and unalterably to redirect our national purpose into a humane, inclusive and multicultural direction: a true dawning of the Age of Aquarius. We believed in our gut this was real, that it could happen, and that our new generation would never again allow our nation to drive us off the cliff of adventurism in a futile commitment to some remote conflict.

Tensions were high; angst was a way of life. Many new creative byways were explored in theatre, film, music, dance, literature, poetry, sculpture, painting, performance art and multi-media.

“Hair”, among many others, was spun out of this cultural cauldron.

This frank, inventive, and very tuneful adventure is essentially a pop-rock concert loosely dressed in a very thin script. The play is little more than a series of sketches daisy-chained together with many memorable songs on topics sometimes stirring, sweet, startling, poignant, comical or embarrassing. Throw in a healthy dose of audience participation, and you have the Burning Coal’s production of “Hair” – Meymandi Theatre transformed into a discothèque slash playground slash party loft.

One may have wished – perhaps with a longer rehearsal period – this tapestry of individual storybook theatre pieces were more fully realized. Success was intermittent: young actors not always completely invested in the reality of their scene, too willing to shoot for prankster-ism, exaggeration or self-conscience parody, rather than coming at us from a position of truth.

Though vocally not everyone was at his or her best opening night, there were many strong voices and performances. Overall the show was a success. The audience participation worked, and was clearly enjoyable for the opening night crowd. The cast, staff and crews’ efforts, inventiveness and hard work were evident.

The principals Claude (Sam Heldt) and Berger (Joel Hughes) acquitted themselves admirably. Aaron Pratt as Woof was great goofy fun throughout – occasionally skittering off into stridency. The many other featured men and women in the cast did outstanding work. Sometimes rapid-fire delivery and less than clear articulation diminished some of the fun. But there were many enjoyable moments. A large cast and a very long list of songs makes it tough to correctly connect the performers with their vocal performances, however some certainly stood out. I particularly enjoyed the Supremes-esque version of “White Boys,” among others. Iris (Aurelia Belfield) was definitely in charge.

Well-deserved applause goes to the delightful featured role of “Margaret Mead” (Julie Oliver) and Ron Jenkins as her hubby Hubert. Oliver was right-on with her rendition of “My Conviction.” [Excerpt: “You know kids, I wish every mother and father in this theater would go home tonight and make a speech to their teenagers and say kids, be free, no guilt, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody. Right? Right!”]

I wish that the relationship between Berger, Claude and Sheila (Whitney Madren) could have been informed with more depth and confidence. I understand that the choice to run away from feelings is a way of demonstrating that the feelings are real and powerful, however this trio, and the two young men in particular, are the focal point of the Tribe (and of the show). Their love for each other should have been emblematic and unembarrassed. “Love and freedom” then were not some wild blue yonder ideals; rather they were the unalloyed discoveries for those in the hippy movement. It was as if they owned it. (Granted, maybe at the time the drugs helped.) This writer and a great many of us are very grateful for the ground that was broken at that time in the name of freedom for men, women, and minorities of every stripe. So, the decision to connect with ones feelings by appearing to deny them seemed odd. Though not an illogical choice, it was not an inspiring one. Moreover it tended to telegraph what was to come, rather than intrigue us with a new model of how men may connect with each other: with open affection and innocent physicality – a welcomed change from the rigid handshakes or mock aggression that predominated in the 60s.

This challenging production will grow stronger in the days ahead. The cast is uniformly energetic, and captures the spirit of youthful naïveté. I applaud the efforts of this hard working and talented group. The Tribe members themselves appear to have a blast.

Choreographer Robin Harris did a good job of creating synchronous, stylized, fluid movement. Director Mark Sutch brought ingenuity and imagination to the task of staging this army of kids in a small space. Music Director Brad Gardner brought the show to life with a rocking sound from his small troupe of accomplished musicians and a vibrant sound from his Tribe of singers. Joe Gardner’s set is funky, sturdy and functional. Christopher Popowich’s lighting design was unobtrusive and fun, though the drug trip sequence might have been less bright and, well, more… what? Psychedelic? (Ah, the good old days!)

For those concerned about the famous nude scene at the end of Act I, fear not. You will enjoy the clever way this controversial moment is handled.

If you choose to sit in the balcony, you should agree to relocate downstairs when requested by cast members during Act II. If you stay upstairs, the tent-like scrim that lowers from the ceiling will mostly obstruct your view.

There were minor technical distractions: actors wrestling with uncooperative corded microphones, for example. No doubt there were reasons. Would cordless mics have been too gross an anachronism? Indeed, un-amplified soloists in that intimate space were often more pleasing.

Brittnye Elise Batchelor’s wigs were effective and necessary – hard to grow shoulder length hair in a few short weeks – however Mr. Hughes as Berger seemed often to be flipping faux bangs out of his face – an amusing flashback for some of us to our teen years. It may have been better if the actor had simply willed himself to accept it. The effect of the hair was not nearly as disturbing as the frequent gesture.

This production grows on you though. Indeed on opening night before ones eyes it solidified – one might say matured – over the course of the evening, rough edges and all.

What appeared at first as so many frolicking children playing dress-up with their parents’ vintage clothing, emerged by evening’s end as a convincing Tribe, channeling the poignancy and pain – as well as the peace, love, and joy – of some dark days in American history. By play’s end, the psychedelic joyride had arrived at the gates of a rebellious idea: that the loss of even a single young life is an unbearable price to pay for admission into an anesthetized adulthood.

Star-crossed triangulations and the heartbreak of young love, the brutal demands of endless war, the brute will to shake up the world: by the final moments, and a joyous finale of “Let The Sun Shine In,” we could see the graffiti hand-written clearly on the wall: “Claude was here. And he performed miracles.”

“Hair” is here, and still holds in its hand contemporaneous power for us all. And it continues through September 27 at Burning Coal Theatre Company.