Full frontal nudity, on stage, at the Hollywood Bowl. Who would’ve thunk it? But it was there, and even more amazingly, tweets of the momentous occasion aren’t easy to find. Perhaps I should backup and explain.
Last night, we went to see the musical “Hair” at the Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl does one musical every summer — sometimes we go (“Guys and Dolls” in 2009); usually we don’t. The 18,000 seat Bowl isn’t the best venue for musicals done with primarily Hollywood actors — the stage is too far away from the affordable seats, and you often end up watching the big screens instead of the stage. But “Hair” is one of my favorite musicals — we saw the Reprise production at the Wadsworth back in 2001; and the excellent CSUN production back in 2006. Further, with “Hair”, every production is a little different — in the original days, the show was constantly shifting, with songs moving between characters, and songs coming in and out. Whether that is still happening I don’t know; I do know there were songs in the show last night that I don’t recall hearing before, and plot nuances I hadn’t noticed. In any case, I had been thinking about getting tickets to “Hair” at the Bowl but hadn’t made it to the box office. Then they showed up on Goldstar. Sold.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room — my opening line. There was, for the first time ever, nudity at the Hollywood Bowl. Unlike the earlier productions I’ve seen (especially the one at the Reprise), none of the leading performers joined in the nude scene. The reason why is interesting, and it demonstrates how much times have changed since the 1960s. The leads — Kristen Bell, Hunter Parrish, and the folks from Glee — didn’t join in thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones and the fact that had they joined in, the pictures would be all over the Internet the next morning (and hence my comment about Twitter above — I was curious if the predicted phenomenon had indeed materialized… but I could find no evidence). One wonders if stage nudity by name actors will be killed by the cell phone and people quick to post the photos. In any case, most of the ensemble did participate in the nude scene (which occurs at the end of Act I — when the parachute comes out, be ready), and I applaud them for their courage to keep it in and stay true to the story.
So what is the story of “Hair”? If you try to figure it out from the cast albums, you’ll have trouble — the songs express emotion much more than telling the story. From the movie? Excuse me while I laugh, for my recollection is that the movie butchered the plot and the order of things. Here was how I wrote things back in 2006:
Hair is a rough musical. The basic plot is the story of Claude, who just had his induction physical for the Vietnam draft, and is about to go into the Army. The first half, however, is more getting to know the tribe and their relationships; the second half (which was extremely powerful) is a hallucination about the war. Along the way there is love, some nudity (although quite tastefully done), more love, war protests, drugs, more love, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, more love, some starshine, and a wild trip. For those unfamiliar with the 1960s (alas, I was the next generation), this recreates it.
Last night there seemed to be more to the story. Looking at the Wikipedia synopsis, however, it appears the details of the story have always been there and I just didn’t remember. As that synopsis is long and detailed, I think I’ll just let you read it yourself. I’ll wait while you do. Of course, it doesn’t matter much. “Hair”, at this point, is such an established musical that the story is what the story is. I’ll just note that book and lyrics are by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and the music is by Galt MacDermot, and that Galt MacDermot did the music for my favorite show of all time — the New York Shakespeare Festival version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona“. I’ll also note that some of the numbers described in the synopsis (such as “The Bed”, which I happen to like, and “Hippie Life”, an addition from the movie for the revival) appear to have been cut, and there were other numbers present that don’t appear in any listing of songs of which I’m aware.
With restagings such as this production, the real question is how well did the director (in this case, Adam Shankman, who also served as choreographer) interpret the work, and how well did the cast do. Let’s start with the director, for the Hollywood Bowl is an odd beast when it comes to staging Broadway musicals. There’s no fly space; the orchestra is on the stage; the stage is gigantic; most people cannot see the stage; and there are all these ramps that can be used. I’m pleased to say that Shankman used the space well. His Hollywood background permitted him to use the big screens to his advantage to showcase the cast to the people in the back; the ramps allowed the tribe to go out into the audience area and make it a love in. There were scaffolds and such on the side of the set with various places that the ensemble seemed to go to at points, but that didn’t seem too connected with the show. Most importantly, he took advantage of his large ensemble to cover the space well; and when he wanted to narrow the focus, he used lighting very effectively to close the apeture to just what he wanted the audience to see. I was pleased.
As for the cast, I was very very very surprised and pleased. The Bowl often does stunt casting for these shows, and initially the casting of Kristen Bell as Sheila seemed to be just that. I mean, we knew she could sing from her work on Frozen, but she’s not known for her Broadway work. I’m pleased to say that Bell nailed it. Watching her during “Easy to be Hard” — her voice, her face, her emotion — was just amazing. She was also equally strong in “Good Morning, Starshine”. I did notice, however, that she seemed to disappear from the stage quite often.
Also strong were the other female leads — Sarah Hyland as Crissy and Jenna Ushkowitz as Jeanie. Both were wonderful in one of my favorite numbers, “Air”. Hyland did a great job with her solo in “Frank Mills”. As with Bell, Shankman used the big screens at the Bowl to his advantage with these two — even though you were far away, you were able to watch the great facial expressions and acting. I was impressed.
Lastly, attention must be paid to Amber Riley as Dionne. Although her character isn’t really established in the story, she gets some of the choicest solos — such as the opening number (“Aquarius”) and the solos in a few others. This gal has some great pipes, and did just wonderfully on her songs.
Turning to the male leads. The man around whom the story of Hair is centered is Claude, played by Hunter Parrish. Most folks know Parrish from Weeds, but he did a great stage turn in the recent revival of “Godspell” in New York and he continued with that power here. He had good chemistry with all the actors and a great singing voice. A lot of fun to watch, although I do wish they had tossed in a throwaway line about Agrestic. As Berger, Benjamin Walker exhibited the same power and charisma that he had ages ago when we saw him in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” back in 2008. Again, strong singing, strong acting, and loads of charisma and fun. Rounding out the lead male characters were Jonah Platt as Woof and Mario as Hud. Both gave great performances; Mario especially so in numbers such as “I’m Black”.
As for the rest of the tribe — we never learn their names, so it hard to cite who did what. There were a few that had solos in Act II (during “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”) or in the hallucination sequence that were just spectacular. Others had looks and moved so well you couldn’t keep your eyes off of them (there was one slightly larger actress in overalls who was just great). As noted earlier, I applaud those who chose to do the nude scene — that takes courage (and I especially applaud the women who did the scene who didn’t follow the current trends). Most importantly about the tribe — they were just having fun, and that fun was radiating out from them. They had an inner joy at doing this show and doing this music and carrying this message, and it spread out to the back of the bowl. The remainder of the tribe consisted of Amanda Balen (FB), Carly Bracco (FB), Jennifer Foster (FB), Taylor Frey, Courtney Galiano (FB), Nkrumah Gatling (FB), Rhett George (FB), Kyle Hill, Jeremy Hudson (FB), Joanna Alexis Jones/FB, Adrianna Rose Lyons (FB, FB), Yani Marin (FB), Kimberly Moore, Maurice Murphy (FB), Jane Papageorge (FB), Louis Pardo (FB), Matthew Peacock, Corbin Reid (FB), Johnny Rice/FB, Haylee Roderick (FB), Cailan Rose (FB), Constantine Rousouli (FB), Rustin Cole Sailors (FB), Hanna-Lee Sakakibara, and Isaac Tualaulelei (FB).
As for the musical side of things: The on-stage orchestra, which was in appropriate period dress, was conducted by Lon Hoyt, who served as musical director. It consisted of Dick Mitchell (baritone sax, clarinet, flute, piccolo), Wayne Bergeron (trumpet), John Fumo (trumpet), Larry Hall (trumpet), Alan Kaplan (trombone), Paul Viapiano (guitar), Justin Lees-Smith (guitar), Tery Henry (bass), Pete Maloney (drums), and Brian Kilgore (percussion). They had a great sound.
Turning to the technical and support side. The sound design by Philip G. Allen was, for the most part, excellent; there were, however, a few microphone glitches that were quite noticeable in Act II. The lighting design of Tom Ruzika, which presumably includes the projections as well, was spectacular in creating the mood, focusing attention, and setting the stage with the projections around the perimeter of the bowl. The scenic design of Joe Celli, combined with the props of Kirk Graves, did a reasonable job of establishing place and times, given the constraints of the Hollywood Bowl. The hair, wigs, and makeup of Byron J. Batista (FB), combined with the costume design of Rita Ryack, did an even better job of establishing the time (plus he did a great job of camouflaging Kristen Bell’s baby bump). Michael Donovan was in charge of casting. Zach Woodlee was the associate director and choreographer. Meredith J. Greenburg was the production stage manager, and Michael Scarola and Michael Vitale were assistant stage managers.
“Hair” has two more performances at the Hollywood Bowl: tonight at 8pm, and tomorrow at 7:30pm. Visit the Hollywood Bowl for more information.
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: August continues with “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. This is followed by “Buyer and Cellar” at the Mark Taper Forum on 8/9, and “Broadway Bound” at the Odyssey on 8/16 (directed by Jason Alexander). The following weekend we’ll be on vacation in Escondido, where there are a number of potential productions… out of the many available, we have picked “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe on Sunday, 8/24, and “Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town on Wednesday, 8/27. I’ll note that what they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads and underwhelming. August will end with “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). I’m just starting to fill out September and October — so far, the plans include “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB), “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB). November is also shaping up, with dates held for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB), “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB), the Nottingham Festival, “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB), “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB), and “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.