Director Marcia Joy Douglas and musical director Danny Williams have woven a net of technical wizardry and choral excellence that allows the cast, musicians and crew of the 1968 rock musical “Hair” to overcome most of the show’s innate faults.
The show has almost no plot, sheds little insight on the youth culture of the 1960s or the war that shaped it, and just four out of its more than 30 songs are worth remembering — “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard,” and “Let the Sunshine In.” But colleges, community theater companies and even Broadway can’t resist reviving “Hair” because it’s just a helluva lot of fun.
What sets the University of Maine School of Performing Arts production apart from many others is the sound the 31 voices make when they all are raised together. Williams, who also leads the 12-piece band that is onstage for the entire show and turns out to be one its most developed characters, weaves the individual voices in the cast into an intricate blanket of sound.
It ensnares and entangles audience members. It wraps and comforts them. It entices and seduces theatergoers into believing they just might be hearing Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for “West Side Story.” While the cast is made up of many fine singers, none of them sounds as good individually as they do together.
Douglas, along with technical director Joe Donovan and lighting designer Shon Causer, appears to have pushed UMaine’s Hauck Auditorium to its technical limits. “Hair” uses strobe lights, black lights, house lights and most likely every theatrical light for miles to give the production the intense brightness and dark shadows of the 1960s.
The hallucinogenic scene with paintings and photographs from past wars, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements is especially effective because Douglas chooses to project them from the back of the stage on a skrim behind a sliding set piece. In many productions, slides or their 21st century equivalent are projected onto a screen above the set. That removes them from what’s happening onstage instead of making them seem a part of it.
Douglas also does an excellent job of moving her large cast efficiently on and off Dan Bilodeau’s highly functional set. The platforms and catwalk give actors the room they need to jump, dance and gyrate without bumping into each other or appear crowded onstage.
While “Hair” may be a nostalgic look back at the “revolution” of the 1960s, it’s also a painful reminder that for the most part, women were nothing more than handmaidens. Their parts are woefully underwritten and underdeveloped. The best songs written for the women of “Hair” are tributes to the girl groups of the late 1950s and early ’60s, and the folk singers who followed them.
Alyssa Manzi, Allison Smith and Lisa Roth, who sing “Black Boys,” and Serena Grier, Kristen Johansen and Rebeckah Perry, who belt out “White Boys,” are sensational and stop the second act cold. Allisen Donovan as Sheila, however, fails to channel her inner Joni Mitchell or Jennifer Warnes in the show’s signature love song, “Easy to Be Hard.” Donovan seems to be singing in a post-Beyonce era.
The thin plot thread that runs through “Hair” is devoted to two guys — Berger, played by Matthew Bessette, and Claude, portrayed by Justin Zang. Both are excellent and developed back stories to give these characters more depth than their creators did. Zang makes Claude’s struggle over whether to burn his draft card or go to war visible and painfully and achingly real.
“Hair” is an ensemble piece. For the performers, the goal is to become a tribe. On opening night last Friday, it wasn’t until the finale that the performers achieved that goal.
Yet, as Nestor Gonzalez’s sweet tenor led the cast offstage and up the aisles singing, “Let the sun shine. Let the sun shine in. The suuuun shine in,” the cast, the musicians and the audience were one.
And that is why “Hair” keeps growing back in theaters around the world.