Posted Online: April 17, 2013, 12:57 pm

"Hair" is exuberant, affecting at The District

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By Jonathan Turner,

"Hair" at the District Theatre features Nina Schreckengost and Kiarri Andrews.
Peace, love, freedom and happiness are key themes in the primal, tribal, landmark musical "Hair," but coming away from the totally groovy, euphoric production now at The District Theatre, you also feel conflict, confusion, hurt and fear.

The 1968 rock musical -- which triumphed in a joyous 2009 Broadway revival -- doesn't really have a plot, other than focusing on the lives and loves of three members of a diverse 16-person "tribe" -- a group of politically active, long-haired hippies living a bohemian life in New York and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. And you can't ask for three stronger, more powerful actors than Chris Causer as Berger, Nina Schreckengost as his girlfriend, Sheila, and Bryan Tank as their roommate, Claude. You can't take your eyes off of them (only in part because they show a lot of skin).

The intimate, outspoken friends all struggle to balance their young lives, relationships and the sexual revolution with rebellion against the Vietnam War, their conservative parents and society. "Hair" loudly and proudly proclaims what it was like to be young during that tumultuous time -- yearning for freedom, experimentation, the next high (be it emotional, spiritual, physical or drug-induced), yet not knowing exactly what your place in the world would be.

I know what it's like to bond with a cast and crew during a theatrical production -- the long hours of rehearsal and the close camaraderie you form with your compatriots in putting on the best possible show. But this one must be especially tight, or the District group truly are the best actors (or maybe a combination of the two). Because of the touchy-feely nature of the material and the informal hangout of the living-room set, these actors are on each other a good deal of the time, and seem to connect and move with each other on a raw, instinctual level.

The feel-good, "be-in" atmosphere begins before a word is spoken or note is sung. A strong scent of incense hangs in the air, and the colorful cast is chatting on stage. Mr. Causer (who was Roger in the District's "Rent") also plays the crowd before and during the show, hugging female patrons and generally spreading the love. Cast members occasionally frolic throughout the audience later on.

While there is no full nudity in the show, the exhibitionist tendencies of the cast are most personified in the mercurial, tempestuous Berger, who quickly doffs his vest and pants and spends most of the time only in a loin cloth and at times has fun mooning people. In Mr. Causer's intense, withering portrayal (he's alternately manic, uninhibited and rigorously controlled), the tribe's leader also is not very likable.

A tense, cathartic high point in "Hair" is after Sheila gives Berger a shirt, and he inexplicably hates it and throws a temper tantrum. To be on the receiving end of Mr. Causer's wrath is frightening. Ms. Schreckengost responds with one of the show's most famous songs (and rare ballads), "Easy to be Hard." Contrasting with her usually sunny, optimistic outlook (the actress has one of the most dazzling smiles I've ever seen), she despairs with profound ache -- and a thrillingly piercing, expressive singing voice -- in this number that shows how mean, cold and heartless people can be. Berger and Sheila quickly make up.

Berger's other drama -- which is the main plot driver for the show -- is trying to convince Claude not to enlist in the Army. Claude is pressured to conform by his parents, played by Joe Maubach and Angela Rathman (who get the unique pleasure playing both sides, in the wild tribe as well). Mr. Tank gives an anguished, characteristically impassioned performance; a highlight is his first act closer, "Where Do I Go?" as the rest of the tribe raises their draft cards, preparing to burn them.

Due to the way it's written, "Hair" is an innately democratic musical (appropriate for a generation championing togetherness, love and cooperation), as most everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine, and many of the exuberant, affecting songs are brief -- some piled on, one after another.

For me, other standout numbers are the iconic hits: the opening, intoxicating "Age of Aquarius," led by the lovely, winning Cara Chumbley; the glorious, exuberant "Good Morning Starshine," led by Ms. Schreckengost, and the finale, "Let the Sun Shine In," which was not as joyful and life-affirming as I expected. Due mainly to the angry outburst by Berger at its end, where he overturns the furniture, this anthem here is more a pleading, hopeful dream -- a demand that's not fully realized yet.

Director Tristan Tapscott (the District's artistic director) has assembled a dream cast, and perfectly evokes this era, when anything seemed possible and our country was riven by hatred, war, assassination and discrimination. With such an enthusiastic, committed cast, this is a show not to miss.

If you go

-- What: "Hair"
-- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 28.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $20, available at 309-235-1654.