Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of La Comedia Christmas Spectacular
It seems ever so fitting that the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) should commemorate the 40th birthday of its world class Musical Theatre Program by staging a show that recently marked its 40th birthday, the celebratory musical Hair. As Cincinnati audiences have come to expect, CCM's productions are always engaging, professionally mounted, and splendidly performed, and Hair is no exception.
Hair, often referred to as the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, premiered on Broadway, following an Off-Broadway mounting, in 1968, and is currently enjoying a critically acclaimed New York revival. The loosely constructed plot follows a group of hippies as they address issues such as social activism, racial equality, drug experimentation, sexual freedom, and anti-war protests. At the center of the Tribe (as the communal hippies are known) are Claude, who has just gotten his draft notice, Berger, an irreverent stoner, and Sheila, a fiery activist.
The book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni are much more freeform than most Broadway musicals, with a purposefully scattered focus to match the freedom of expression and spontaneity of the counterculture subjects being portrayed. There's not much emphasis on character development outside of the three lead roles; the show focuses instead on the communication of social and political issues, as well on sheer entertainment value. Galt MacDermot's music is accomplished, providing melodic structure for the score's less polished and quick-fire lyrics. MacDermot's rock-flavored music pulsates with emotion and energy while also being highly theatrical. In what would become a trademark for MacDermot, his score for Hair features many more songs than the typical Broadway show, with most numbers being shorter in duration and demonstrating a wide breadth of musical motifs. Song highlights include "Aquarius," the haunting "Easy To Be Hard," "Where Do I Go?"Claude's act one closer where he contemplates whether to enter the Army or stay behind with his friends and honor his pacifism"Walking In Space" and the moving "The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In)."
Hair marks the second of three shows with music by Galt MacDermot to be presented at CCM in a short time span. His Two Gentlemen of Verona score was heard last spring in a Mainstage production, and the lesser known and underrated The Human Comedy will be presented in the Studio Series in the Spring of 2010.
As part of CCM's 40th anniversary celebration, many alumni have returned to address CCM students, as well as to partake in some performances this month. CCM grads can be found in most Broadway casts at any given moment, and the cast of Hair demonstrates that the talent pool and top-notch training of CCM students continues. Brandon Yanez is an appealing, conflicted and emotional Claude, and sings many of the show's best songs beautifully. As Sheila, Lexie Dorsett wonderfully captures the role's intensity and conviction, and she likewise displays strong vocals in some of the piece's better numbers. Joe Moeller is aptly manic as burned-out Berger, and brings some endearing qualities to a mostly unlikeable character. There is fine work from the entire Tribe, and supporting performances especially deserving of praise include Nick Nelson (very funny as Woof), Melvin Logan (a strong voiced Ron), Alysha Deslorieux (a fiery Dionne) and Julie Kavanagh (a ditsy and hilarious Jeanie).
Director Aubrey Berg has garnered sufficiently committed performances from his cast, which is so important for the effectiveness of this show. Mr. Berg provides a suitable tone and pace throughout, and brings clarity to several portions of the show (namely Claude's drug-induced act two hallucination) that can easily be presented as a muddled mess. He also incorporates a slide show of late '60s songs and photographs before the show and during intermission that likewise prepares the audience for a musical that addresses the turbulent issues of the period. The choreography by Diane Lala is vivid and visually stunning, though it looks a bit too technical in a few spots for the characters and setting. Steve Goers energetically leads a rockin' 11-piece band.
Mark Halpin has adapted the set designed by Paul Shortt for the 1989 CCM production of Hair for this production. The multi-tiered unit set is filled with numerous emblems of the hippie culture, and serves as a perfect environment for the messages conveyed in the piece. The costumes by Reba Senske are period appropriate and attractive, with some fun touches for the "Black Boys" and "White Boys" numbers. The lighting by James Gage is evocative and professionally rendered. Unfortunately, the sound mix was off in the first half of the performance I attended, leaving many of the lyrics unintelligible during solos.
In a time when our country is still involved in a war that many feel is unjustified, the messages of Hair resonate poignantly in today's America. CCM provides a first-rate production that is worthy of its now rich history and tradition, as well as showcasing the talent that will continue to demonstrate its place as one of the top schools for musical theater in the nation. The musical continues at CCM from through November 21, 2009.-- Scott Cain