There are a few shows that I just truly enjoy listening to for the sheer joy of the music, and the jubilance of the cast, and Hair is one of those for me. A huge fan of the movie as well as the stage play, I really enjoy the story, the tribe, and the message. So, when I was invited to go out to Bainbridge Island to see a production of it, I jumped at the chance.
Sadly, due to an emergency, I was only able to stay for the first half of the show, and as much as I’m hoping to get back to see the second half, given other Lady M commitments, I’m not sure I’ll be able to go. So, I will review the half that I saw, which for me, was a mix of great and really not great. So, it truly is a Hamlet-esque moment of, to Hair or not to Hair, so I will lob up my opinion, and let my fantastic readers decide for themselves whether or not to make the trek out to see this show.
I’d like to start with the gems in this show, because there are some sparklers! The first was from the woman who opened the show with the best Age of Aquarius I have EVER seen! Ronny, played by the incomparable Olivia Lee (who you’ll remember I gushed about both in my review of StageRIGHT’s Into the Woods, and then again in their Are You There God? It’s me, Karen Carpenter), who was just as epic and amazing as I knew she would be. Actually, no, that’s not accurate. She was even better! Her opening number set the bar high for the rest of the cast, by belting out the notes which were pitch perfect, with an intention so clear, and an energy and bravery that the hippies of the 60s would have been so very proud of and would have cheered through their drug dazed haze. To me, Ms. Lee is somehow the love child of Cher and Cheri Oteri, with Cher’s beauty and power combined with Cheri’s hysterical comedic timing. She’s stunning and goddess-like in this opening number, and then has some hilarious, scene stealing comedic moments throughout the show, and I was truly mesmerized by her. I will do everything I can to see any show she is in, because I am seriously one of her biggest fans. Bravo, Miss Olivia! You killed it out there!
The next jewel in this production played two characters in this show. One moment, hippie Dionne, Tribe member, and the next Margaret Mead, inquisitive, seems-to-be conservative out-of-towner. These two roles could not be further apart from each other, but both require amazing commitment to character, and strong acting chops. And Michelle Lorenz Odell’s cup overfloweth with both! Ms. Lorenz Odell was absolutely exquisite in her character development and commitment to these zany roles. Vocally on point with a physical comedic genius, and ability to be so in the moment, she absolutely entertained in every possible way. Her number as Margaret Mead almost stopped the show, the audience just kept on clapping, it was THAT good. I’m an instant fan, and can’t wait to see Ms. Lorenz Odell on stage again! Bravo!
I thought the set designer used the space well, although I hope they put better anchors on the rolling boxes, because there were numerous times a cast member got on or off of one and their weight almost flipped the thing over. I also really enjoyed most of the costumes, they definitely got the look of the late 60s absolutely correct.
There were also a few tribe members I truly adored. Madison Jade Jones was delightful in every nuance of her moments, Melanie Curran was a perfect flower child, and Kali Ponzo was adorable as sweet Jeanie. Overall, it’s the actors that fully committed to their characters, were vocally accurate, and physically embodied the movement of the time that caught my eye. I wish I could say the whole cast was that for me, but it was just these few.
And with that, as I move into the elements of this show that left me disappointed, and worse off confused at points, let me start with my biggest gripe first: Script Analysis. As a writer, words are my everything. As an actor, my training is grounded and anchored in script analysis. I learned early that it’s the script that a informs your choices, and it’s not only memorizing lines, but knowing WHAT you are saying. As a director/choreographer, casting is also driven by the script, or should be, and while out of the box casting works sometimes, it’s not always successful, and for me, there were some casting choices that didn’t make sense to me at all.
The worst offense of this, for me, sadly, was Berger, played by Ted Dowling. Not only is Mr. Dowling much too long in the tooth to play Berger, his singing was terribly flat the entire first act, and he seemed more interested in dropping his pants than creating real acting moments. His performance was so off from what is should be (and the costumer didn’t help him out by fitting him with a loincloth that was too big so it drooped off his ass like a burnt sienna colored diaper, and a vest that cut him at the worst possible place for his body type), that I was actually uncomfortable watching him in this role. The lines delivered by Berger and about Berger weren’t believable at all with this actor in the role. I see from his bio that Mr. Dowling does a lot of film and television work, and I could see him working quite well in those mediums. But in the theatre, a performance has to be much bigger, much more committed, and much more real, as there are no editors to make it better in post-production, so I truly did not enjoy his performance at all.
Most of the music seemed off from the cast, and I don’t know if it was a mic problem, or a tempo change problem, but the music was less than stellar, evident most in the ensemble numbers. With it being second weekend, those harmonies and tempos should be set, but they were all over the place, which was quite disappointing.
And while not disappointing, my biggest confusion in this production comes in the form of the other two leads Claude and Sheila played by Jesse Smith and Alison Monda respectively. I was so confused by these two young actors because their acting was great, their physicality and commitment to character was right on point, and both clearly have vocal chops, yet they sang so softly, almost weakly, that I have no idea what was going on. Mr. Smith, especially seems to have a strong voice in there, and appeared to be holding back. There was one moment during I Got Life, I wanted so badly for him to let go and belt it out, because the notes are there! I just craved more power because I think it’s there. So, not sure if Mr. Smith was sick the night I was there, or if it’s a musical direction choice, but with a talent like that, I’m not sure why he was singing so softly.
On the flip side, Ms. Monda was given a gargantuan task of singing Easy to Be Hard like the movie, instead of how it is usually done in the play. For those of you unfamiliar, Sheila is in love with Berger who has just humiliated her in front of their whole tribe and storms off like a petulant child leaving her to sing Easy to Be Hard as a sad Carol King-esque ballad. In the movie, however, it is sung by the wife of another tribe member who has been deserted by her husband, leaving her to raise their son alone so that he can be a rambling hippie, which makes the movie version of this song a heart wrenching gospel power ballad. Ms. Monda did belt it out, and had some wonderful acting moments in that, but the rest of her singing mirrored Mr. Smith’s with appearing to be holding back. A friend of mine describes Ms. Monda as the best Maureen (from RENT) that he’s ever seen, and he’s a tougher critic than I am, so clearly she has some pipes. And I’m not sure why she only let us enjoy them in one number. It was just really confusing.
And it’s these confusing, odd moments that I lay at the feet of director Teresa Thuman. According to her bio, Ms. Thuman has a theatre pedigree that is enviable and respectable, so these weird, odd, confusing moments are even more glaring for me. There was such a huge chasm between the failures and successes in this show, and that inconsistency seems odd in the hands of such a skilled, seasoned director.
I’ve been told by some creative people in the community theatre world that audiences who see community theatre shouldn’t hold them to the same standards as an Equity house and I completely disagree. I think audiences who appreciate art at all levels deserve a consistently good show. Some of the best things I’ve seen have been small/fringe/community theatre, and I think the audiences of those shows are intelligent and deserve the best possible. And there were some elements of this production of Hair that did that! They were delightful and thoughtful and out and out wonderful. And there were some elements that were incorrect, off-key, and inauthentic, and fell very short of what I think this very capable theatre can produce. I will say this, though, in all sincerity, the entire cast looks like they are having a blast performing this show, and that joy, that jubilation, might just be enough to get me back over the sound to see the rest of this show that I missed, because the happiness of the cast is quite electric.
I give BPA’s Hair a solid applause for the good, and a shrug of confused and disappointed shoulders for the bad.
Hair Plays at Bainbridge Performing Arts through October 25th, and showtime and ticket information can be found on BPA’s website.
It was a beautiful ferry ride over from Seattle, and they did let some sunshine in, so you should maybe head over to Bainbridge Island and experience it for yourself. Ms. Lee’s opening number is truly brilliant enough that you probably should go.
Ciao for now,
Photos courtesy of Bainbridge Performing Arts and Facebook