Tonika Todorova is an adventure architect and a passionate lover of the shared human experience.
Pictured (l-r):Brittany Wolf, Kenyai O’Neal, Sara Reinecke, Ekia Thomas, Joey Harbert, Aaron Mitchell Reese, and Brandy Miller. Photo by Ellen Prather.
By Tonika Todorova
No matter which decade it is, it’s hard for HAIR to not seem topical: a disillusioned youth speaking (and singing) out against war and destruction; a generation lost in place and purpose in the world; a minority faction rising against a powerful populace that wants all to conform. And as long as there are still armed conflicts and as long as governments choose to send their sons and daughters to die for ideologies, religions, power, or even, simply, riches – humanity will find a way to shine through the innocence of adolescence.
Nestled in the heart of the warm Arlington Heights community, is Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. Basked in the glow of the golden hour, on a Chicago June day, the scene is nothing short of cinematic. Surreal, even. I mention the setting because experiencing art can often be affected by its surroundings. On this chunk of Earth, life isn’t reflecting the harsh realities of other parts of the planet. Here, peace, love and understanding seem to be in abundance. Here, the statement made by original HAIR producer — Chicago businessman turned U.S. Senate candidate Michael Butler — that it is “…the strongest anti-war statement ever written…” is missing its immediacy.
As a whole, the production is sound. Every performer in this young ensemble, at some point or another, is able to deliver an honest and moving moment, and although I heard them all individually knock some notes out of the ballpark, as a group, they shy away from blasting us with some of their powerhouse voices. The musical accompaniment seems rather removed from its target and disconnected from the performers, resulting in the quietest HAIR I’ve been privy to. As if the show was trying not to offend, even in volume. But producing HAIR comes with a stipulation: You’re taking part of a revolutionary act. It was meant that way when it was created and to perform it or be a part of its audience without understanding this implication does a disservice to the production.
To begin with, HAIR is not the easiest play to direct. Its simple plot can be both its blessing and its curse. The lack of spelled out directions and relationships give directors an opportunity to stretch their creative muscles, but can also lead to meandering and lack of specificity. For the most part, Lauren Rawitz succeeds in grounding her performers, providing the impetus for breaking out in songs ranging from bursting out of a nostalgic am/fm radio in “Electric Blues” to a fun re-enactment of a history class by the Tribe during “Initials.”
Other moments seem confusing at best, as “White Boys” features a distanced Supremes-like trio, limited in physical movement by an odd costume choice, and lackluster at worst, when our protagonist Claude, during his “Ain’t Got No” catalyst, is staged, least offensively, as far away from us as possible. However, no matter what choices are better than others, the strongest catharsis this play delivers is its final scene when”Let the Sunshine In” feels like a tribute to all the lives unlived, an anthem for those whose candle burned out before its time.
The second act moves with different speed, largely due to a more dynamic lighting design from Matt Winstead. The first act is weighed down by all the hard work you can see the cast putting in to set the tone and keep the energy going while lights often work against them in a little too well lit and static atmospheric style. Luckily, towards the end of act one, just in time for the show’s controversial nudity scene, shadows allow for feelings to be exposed without fear of vulnerability. The meaning seems to become clear with the words of Donna Summer (who took part of the German production): “It was not meant to be sexual…We stood naked to comment on the fact that society makes more of nudity than killing.” But I can’t quite discern if this resonates with my fellow audience members. It’s intermission and folks are commenting on the actors’ courage to strip while in line for drinks, and when I mention to the man next to me that this was the cause for theatres to shut down and performers to be threatened with arrests back in the 70s, he met me with a shrug, as if that part of the conversation isn’t the point. Suddenly, it dawns on me that my fellow audience members are largely comprised of the same age as the people who the hippies were trying to reach back in the 60s. Except, that generation is now them. The time capsule was opened and the generation of yesteryear has the opportunity to speak to itself all grown up with the profound understanding that not much, in fact, has changed. This irony makes for great conversation fodder, but instead of talking about what this show means, I walked through a crowd that was interested in talking how good the show is.
Outside the theater, night shrouds the beautiful Arlington Heights community, somewhat unaware how important it really is to Let the Sunshine In.
HAIR runs through July 1st. For more information visit metropolisarts.com.