A 2006 Cal State Northridge production of the 1960s Broadway smash Hair so impacted the student playing Woof that when several years later he established his own theater company, he named it theTRIBE Productions, after the musical’s band of anti-war, pro-peace-&-love hippies who called themselves “The Tribe.”

 Now, six years after that production, theTRIBE’s Christopher Chase has realized his dream of staging a professional revival of The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, which he directs and stars in at Hollywood’s historic El Centro Theatre.

Working on a small stage with a relatively simple though colorful and well-thought-out scenic design (by Chase, Sammi Wallschlaeger, and the cast) and the most basic of lighting designs (by Tiffany Oliver) and featuring a very young ensemble mostly made up of past or current CSUN students, theTRIBE takes Hair back to its earliest roots, and audiences at the El Centro may have the feeling that this could have been how Hair looked and sounded in its earliest incarnation at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.

With several notable exceptions, you won’t hear the caliber voices that audiences were treated to in the recent Broadway production/tour or the kind of sound-and-light pyrotechnics of 2009’s award-winning Chance Theater intimate production. Still, the palpable energy, enthusiasm, and passion Chase and company bring to the project make it well worth checking out, whether you’re as young as its youngest cast members or as old as the 20somethings of the 1960s have become in the 2010s.

A bit of Hair background for the uninitiated or those having a senior moment:

It was mid-1968. LBJ was still President, with Richard Nixon’s election and seven more years of war in Vietnam yet to come. Already, though, there were “tribes” of young people in their teens and twenties whose dissatisfaction with an America riddled with racism, poverty, sexism, sexual repression, and political corruption led them to create the hippie movement of the 60s. More than anything else, though, these “new American patriots,” as they saw themselves, were in revolt against a war they believed to be unjust, unnecessary, and un-American.

Meanwhile, on Broadway, conservatively-dressed New Yorkers, housewives from the suburbs, and out-of-towners from the Midwest were enjoying musical fare like Mame, Sweet Charity, and Promises, Promises. Imagine, then, the reaction of these traditional-looking and thinking theatergoers when Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968. The show seemed to celebrate profanity, illegal drugs, pacifism, sexual adventurousness, and a disrespect for all things “American.” Just the kind of show for Broadway playgoers to thumb their collective noses at, right?

 Well, as anyone with any knowledge of Broadway musicals knows, the answer to this is a big fat wrong. Hair ran for four years and 1750 performances on the Great White Way, spawned an unheard-of simultaneous L.A. production which played two years on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, and had an additional eight productions across the U.S. all running at the same time as the show was selling out night after night on Broadway.

Now, at the El Centro, Galt MacDermot’s music and Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book are in very capable hands as brought to life by fourteen talented young performers, whose racial mix recalls the then revolutionary black-and-white original cast.

Hair unfolds as a series of nearly forty songs running the gamut of emotions and styles from the joy and optimism of “Aquarius” to the sad introspection of “Easy To Be Hard” to the sunny innocence of “Good Morning Starshine”—strung together with a shoestring of a plot.

In a nutshell, roommates Claude (Chase), Berger (Milo Shearer), and Sheila (Oliver) share a complex three-way friendship/love triangle complicated by a national draft that is likely to send one if not both of the men to Vietnam. That’s it.

Supporting characters include Hud (Marcel Hill), a proud representative of the 60s Black Is Beautiful movement; Jeanie (Melanie Wahla), a face-painted redhead impregnated by “some crazy speed freak” and in love with Claude; Woof (William Potter), a self-declared non-homosexual with a love thing for Mick Jagger; and Chrissy (Princess Eze), a flower child hoping for a second chance meeting with “Frank Mills,” who “lives in Brooklyn somewhere and wears this white crash helmet.”

 Other tribe members include Angela (Brianna McDonnell), Dionne (Dominyque Dickson-Thorpe), Leata (LeVanna Atkinson-Williams), Leroy (Patrick Batiste) Ronny (Mary Grace Wilson), Steve (George Chavez, who doubles as Margaret Mead), and Walter (Zach Kaufer).

Chase and company start the proceedings even before the lights go up with cast members interacting with each other and with audience members as the latter enter the El Centro, Shearer (as Berger) in particularly unrestrained form.  Then Wilson and Dickson-Thorpe (two of the cast’s best voices) launch into the iconic “Aquarius,” soon to be joined by the entire company, who sound absolutely terrific when harmonizing.

Songs come in rapid-fire succession with very little “book” to link them, a loosely structured concept that might not work in a different musical but feels just right for Hair. That Chase possesses by far the strongest male voice in the cast makes his renditions of “Manchester, England” and “I Got Life” standout moments in a performance that proves positively irresistible. Shearer’s boundless animal energy and lack of reserve make his Berger a winner too. Oliver’s Sheila is a perky charmer, but the role needs a voice like Wilson’s or Dickson-Thorpe’s to do justice to Sheila’s songs, which happen to be among Hair’s most famous and most powerful—“Easy To Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “The Flesh Failures” (which music fans know as the intro to “Let The Sunshine In”).

Noteworthy cast members include Potter, making for a cute, sexy Woof; the trio of Atkinson-Williams, Batiste, and Hill in the tongue-in-cheek “Yes I’s Finished On Y’All’s Farmland;” and Lopez, who gets to play both tribe member Steve and (in drag) a hilarious out-of-town visitor named Margaret Mead (the Margaret Mead?). Oh, and one audience member gets invited onstage briefly to join the tribe as volunteer cameraman.

As for the infamous Act One “Let’s Get Naked” finale, Chase stages it a few minutes earlier than usual, with Atkinson-Williams’ Leata following several of the guys’ draft-card burning lead with an impromptu bra-burning, which quite naturally inspires many though not all in the cast to strip. Cleverly moving the nudity up a song gives the cast time to get dressed again without having to head off butt-naked into the dressing room for intermission.

 Tony Oliver scores high marks for vocal directing the cast’s harmonies. Leanna Dindall’s choreography has a nicely un-dancey feel, just like what you’d expect from a real-life “tribe” as opposed to a group of musical theater triple-threats. Band director Tim Borquez conducts a live band (hidden down in the theater basement), mixing piano, guitar, and percussion with prerecorded tracks piped into the theater by sound designer (Tiffany) Oliver, who also designed the show’s vintage props. The cast performs unmiked, with no need of amplification. Costumes by Linda Gomez, the CSUN vault, and Chase are the production’s finest design elements and they are a terrific, authentic bunch of tie-dyed ‘60s finery. There’s also an uncredited “smell design,” the theater giving off a faint whiff of pot (I’m assuming it’s the scent only) even as cast members occasionally toke on hand-rolled imitation weed.

Steve Lennenberg is technical director. Ashleigh Hannah is stage manager.

You might have seen more technically sophisticated Hairs with more state-of-the-art designs and performed by Broadway talents. Even without these high-end elements, however, both theTRIBE and “the tribe” are likely to win you over with their raw talent, enthusiasm, and commitment to the project. If you’re like this reviewer, you’ll probably feel that you’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back to the Summer Of Love—and that I believe is precisely what Chase and theTRIBE are aiming for in this very enjoyable revival.

El Centro Theatre Circle Stage, 804 N. El Centro, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 10, 2012

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