Saturday, July 17, 2010

Filth, Frustration, Song and Dance

Sunset Playhouse’s HAIR

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I think (I hope) I managed to do a pretty good job of writing a balanced review of Sunset Playhouse's Hair for next week’s issue of the Shepherd. This in spite of the fact that I honestly don’t like the musical . . . but as easy as it is to dismiss a glossy, commercial Broadway adaptation of a raw, experimental culture late ‘60’s counter-culture, one has to respect the difficulty of the dichotomy.

It is exceedingly difficult to finesse a production of a musical that straddles to opposing aesthetics. ‘60’s counter-culture was, as I understand it, an attempt to get to the underlying truth of things—the fundamental ecstasy of the true and truly interconnected reality beneath all the hate and negativity that had become so institutionalized. It was messy and passionately frustrated with the way things were. By contrast, the aesthetic typical of a Broadway-style musical openly embraces artifice. The most intense emotions meticulously flow out of carefully crafted song and dance that masks the raw intensity of human emotion.

The two aesthetics seem so completely at odds with each other, which is amplified by the fact that thee was experimental theatre in the ‘60’s that should be remembered and revisited onstage. Though there is genuine emotion and anger in the musical, it is wrapped in a glossy package meant for popular consumption. While Rado, Ragni and MacDermot were putting together Hair, there were people working on progressive experimental work that directly engaged and challenged the audience. Retro fashion tends to focus on the kitschier elements of an era. The organic theatre movement, for example, is largely forgotten in the favor of the era’s substantially sanitized theatrical contribution.    

But it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed the musical before. The recent UWM production felt a little bit more dynamic for me, but that has a lot to do with the physical geometry of the UWM Mainstage Theatre. A thrust stage with numerous entrances, the UWM theatre brings the tribe that much closer to the audience. Berger could nestle himself in a corner of the stage and address the audience in a far less formal way than talented, young actor Zach Woods was allowed by the Sunset Playhouse’s somewhat stiff proscenium. The intimacy of that production was charming even for someone who didn’t find the musical all that interesting as a whole. The Sunset production approaches this effect in places. I can’t fathom how the touring Broadway production of the musical would have anywhere near that kind of effect when it comes to the immensity of the Marcus Center next season. . . .

The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Hair runs through August 8th. A comprehensive (and hopefully balanced) review of the show runs in next week’s Shepherd

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