‘Hair’ reaches new audience

Bradenton Herald – There was a time when the American Stage Theatre Company thought “Hair” was too bold a piece to perform for its annual, family-friendly outdoor production.

But when the theater looked at last year’s attendance numbers, it realized that though families were coming, they didn’t make up a majority. So why not take a risk?

“We just suddenly became less afraid of ‘Hair’,” said artistic director Todd Olson. “We said, ‘What the heck?’ We’re trying new and different kinds of musicals out in the park ever since we stopped doing Shakespeare five years ago.”

So they decided to celebrate their 25th anniversary of American Stage in the Park with the musical sensation “Hair,” at St. Petersburg’s Demens Landing Park. The show is rated R.

Directed by Eric Davis, the musical is about a group of young Americans seeking peace, love and good times during the Vietnam War.

“We’re trying to capture the time and spirit of America as authentically as possible,” said Davis.

There’s been lots of excitement surrounding the show’s Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway last year, which was followed by a revival in London’s West End just this month. “Hair,” which originally debuted on Broadway in 1968, is making an impact on a new generation.

“It’s become a lot more prevalent in today’s society,” said actor Bjorn Stowers, who plays Steve. “Out of nowhere — it’s becoming THE show to do. You look at the times that we are living in, people are looking for an answer again. People are looking for that better way of protest because we have those problems now. I think the spirit of ‘Hair’ really captures that.”

“Hair” parallels an assortment of issues Americans are facing in today’s society, Stowers said. For instance, there’s a song from the show called “Electric Blues” that talks about being tuned in, but really being tuned out.

“We’re sitting here today with our iPods,” he said. “Hardly anyone looks up into the sky anymore because we’re too hooked on our electronics now.”

The 1960s were also a time when Americans began to stop trusting the government — another familiar echo of today, Stowers said.

The bottom line of this musical is that the characters are kids worried about where their lives were going during a chaotic time in history, he said. While “Hair” delivers the fun and carefree nature of the era, in the second act, the show digs into the nitty-gritty of some the above issues, stirring emotions, Stowers said.

Dick Baker, who plays Woof, quickly became a fan of the show when he started working on it. Though familiar with many of the songs that helped propel “Hair” to fame, he didn’t know much about the show itself.

“My whole outlook on the show was that it was just a bunch of hippies dancing around,” said Baker, who was in last year’s “Altar Boyz” production at the park. “And everyone’s happy and everyone’s singing. It’s just this feel-good, smiling hippies type thing. But we’re taking a darker, more real approach to what’s going on on stage — to what’s happening at that time in the late ’60s with the draft, the war and racial divides.”

Stowers said the show focuses a lot on the close knit relationships of those within the group.

As Steve, Stowers immerses himself in the hippie movement instead of taking the path of the Black Panthers or the Civil Rights movement. He said that “Hair” also speaks to fellow black Americans in terms of the significant changes taking place during the show’s time period.

“This is where it all really began — the Civil Rights movement,” said Stowers. “Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, all of them. Also, this is when it became more prevalent to use peace as a symbol of protest. This is where we have our sit-ins. This is where segregation is ending.”

Dubbed as the first rock opera of its time, “Hair” stood apart from the whimsical Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. It reflected the angst of a generation through language and music not heard on stage before.

“Your regular Broadway crowd in the ’60s would not be expecting to walk into a theater and hear F-bombs, swearing, racial slurs and depictions of the flag — people spray painting the flag in full-frontal nudity,” Baker said. “It was just revolutionary for its time.”

The American Stage production, though, will have only partial nudity.

Though more than 40 years have past since the show’s debut, cast members believe “Hair” has lots to say for the 21st century.

“We’re a little exhausted in being in two wars right now,” said Olson. “And I think this great burst of color and energy — I think we’re ready for that again.”

published April 25, 2010

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