Performing Arts

‘Hair’ at KC Rep soars to unexpected heights

The “Hair: Retrospection” enemble includes, from left, Linnaia McKenzie, Shanna Jones and Natalie Mosco. Mosco performed in the 1968 Broadway production of “Hair.”
The “Hair: Retrospection” enemble includes, from left, Linnaia McKenzie, Shanna Jones and Natalie Mosco. Mosco performed in the 1968 Broadway production of “Hair.” Kansas City Repertory Theatre

In the wacky world of show business, my friends, there are two kinds of feel-good shows.

The common variety insults your intelligence with obvious button-pushing and gooey sentimentality.

Less frequent is the kind that lifts you out of yourself and transports you to another time and place. And that’s precisely what’s happening at the Spencer Theatre.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “Hair: Retrospection” is unlike any show I’ve seen. It’s a documentary, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration, but decidedly bittersweet. And it’s a sociological essay that engages your brain by forcing you to examine the choices you’ve made.

Bear in mind, this review is written by someone who graduated from high school in 1969 and narrowly avoided being drafted simply by the luck of the draw. My lottery number was just high enough for them to leave me alone. And I spent my early 20s in Austin, Tex., which in those days was a bizarre, drug-saturated hybrid of Haight-Ashbury and Nashville.

And amid the ocean of music that washed over me in my misspent youth was the cast recording of “Hair,” the ground-breaking musical by composer Galt MacDermot and writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni that opened off-Broadway in 1967 and moved to Broadway the following year. These songs -- unique, seductive, compelling -- stayed with me.

Eric Rosen, KC Rep’s artistic director, is no dummy and he understood instinctively that a conventional production of the musical as written would be an aesthetic dead-ender. So he came up with a high-risk concept that could have easily derailed if all the disparate elements had failed to coalesce.

Rosen put together 12 actors, six of whom had performed in either the 1968 Broadway production or the 1977 revival, and six performers in their 20s and 30s. He asked each one to write something personal and explain what the show meant to them.

The results -- sometimes comical, sometimes reflective -- are remarkable. Heather MacRae, for example, describes getting busted while performing with a road company of the show in Florida after she lipped off to the cops. Larry Marshall recounts in amusing detail how the Broadway cast protested the producers’ decision to fire half the New York company and replace them with actors from L.A. Michael James Leslie, who performed in the ‘77 version, explains his lifelong existential loneliness as a guy who as an African-American never felt comfortable in black society or with the white majority.

The other senior members of the cast -- Natalie Mosco, Robert I. Rubinsky and Zenobia -- offer personal accounts of the toll drugs took on their contemporaries, racial tensions within the original company and how political upheaval connected to the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration affected the way the show was perceived.

The younger performers bring equally interesting anecdotes to the stage. Daniel Beeman tells how his father, who marched in a San Francisco peace protest, gave him something personal to wear in the show -- his old fringed, suede jacket of a type that was worn by thousands of kids. Tim Scott explains the personal meaning of “Let the Sunshine In” because it was sung at a celebration of actress Karen Errington’s life just days before she died of cancer; as the audience joined in, as he described it, the song just kept going, chorus after chorus.

In short, mixing the oldsters with the young Turks -- including Shanna Jones, Jared Joseph, Linnaia McKenzie and Emily Shackelford -- produces unexpected moments of honest poignancy. The show has a quality I’ve rarely seen work well. It takes the long view while creating a sense of immediacy.

The veterans have not lost their formidable singing chops and some of them, particularly Natalie Mosco and Larry Marshall, offer fleet-footed dance moves that tells me they’ve been living right. Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is inventive and fluid in a way that plays to the actors’ strengths.

The band, led by musical director Anthony T. Edwards, is superb. The songs don’t follow the original track order on the cast recording. Sometimes they’re performed in snippets and revisited later in the show. Overall, it’s an impressive job of mixing things up and making the score feel fresh.

The designers -- Jack Magaw (scenic), Rachel Laritz (costumes), Grant Wilcoxen (lighting) and Joanna Lynne Staub (sound)-- make vital contributions that help Rosen achieve a coherent, aesthetic whole. A show like this could have easily broken into fragments and descended into chaos. It never does.

It’s truly an ensemble effort, but if I were to choose a star of the production it would most likely be Jeffrey Cady, who produces a river of vivid imagery with his projections on the huge upstage screen overlooking the actors. Cady chooses carefully. At times he’s playful, introducing clever animated effects, but he’s also sober in his choices of Vietnam-era photographs, which he presents respectfully.

The actors and musicians bring all they’ve got and Cady’s projections give them the lift they need to make this show what it is -- an incomparable, indelible piece of theater.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com

“Hair: Retrospection” runs through April 12 at the Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.

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