Mike Thomas knows it is not enough to just put on the hits. It would be an easy thing to do with his last two assignments in The Arboretum: the Lexington Shakespeare festival's 2004 production of Jesus Christ Superstar and this year's SummerFest production of Hair.
Both have practically become reverse jukebox musicals, kicking so many songs onto the Top 40 that a performance is something of a hit parade. But within and between those songs are stories, and like that 2004 Superstar, Thomas' Hair is fabulous because the production doesn't forget that.
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Telling a story is a tougher job with this show, which has a book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot. Hair's plot of Claude, a young man who struggles with where he fits in 1968 America, isn't strong and frequently disappears in songs about sex, drugs, race and war. It has to be tempting here, 40 years after the show's Broadway debut, to just make this “let's look at the hippies.”
There is a lot to look at in the SummerFest production with David Steinmetz's simple graffiti-inspired set and Susan Wigglesworth's thrift-store chic costumes. They give the actors a natural environment to play in.
And play they do, with Peggy Stamps' exuberant choreography and support from the Johnson Brothers Band, whose accompaniment sounds authentic while avoiding some of the dated sounds of the Broadway cast recording and movie soundtrack.
Thomas and his fellow directors have a unified vision to respect this era, not make fun of it or get too nostalgic. So we get a show that truly contemplates its subject, its insights and excesses, successes and failures, which is actually what Hair does.
This frequently happens in the hits.
Brittny Congleton, as Sheila, has one of those moments of insight late in Act I with her plaintive rendition of Easy to Be Hard, which asks how people can be so simultaneously compassionate and self-absorbed. Congleton also hits in Act II with Good Morning Starshine, exhibiting a voice that echoes singers of the era such as Carole King or Janis Ian.
This is a good production for Transylvania University students, as Congleton's classmate Cameron Perry has a strong show as Woof, with a fearless rendition of Sodomy early in Act I and an entertaining turn as the 1920s singer in Electric Blues.
On opening night, Wednesday, that Act II opener was one of the more successful ensemble numbers, though some of the group efforts were where the show broke down. Dead End, in particular, suffered from sound problems and an epidemic of flatness, and the Act II hallucination-and-history sequence frequently meandered.
On the flip side, there were deliriously unified numbers such as the joyous I Believe in Love and a markedly heartbreaking Let the Sunshine In. That, accompanied with Adam Fister's searching performance as Claude singing the Act I finale, Where Do I Go, were centerpieces to this production's power. (The nude scene frequently employed at this point in Hair, but not in this production, would have killed this moment.)
In his direction, Thomas was making us think about this show, about what it said, how it reflected an era and what its implications and questions are for today. He took us on much more than a nostalgia trip.