Let the Sunshine In: Out of the Box scores big with its adaptation of ‘Hair’

As the flower children saunter onstage and take their places on the crazy quilt of blankets, the band strikes up the opening bars of “Aquarius.” Suddenly, the question arises: Is this the right time to be celebrating the Woodstock generation? With such a grim economy outside, the cheery and hopeful up-with-people overture of this now-classic musical seems less like a balm for our ills and more like a poke in the eye from the past.

But last Saturday night at Center Stage Theater, Out of the Box Theatre Company managed to pull off this revival without sinking into irony, and it did so with talent, vitality and some self-deprecating humor.

“Hair” was directed by Kellen Vanetti and Samantha Eve, neither of whom were born yet when the original Joseph Papp production opened in New York of 1967. As a result, this isn’t some nostalgia trip performed grudgingly by youngsters nervously checking their iPhones and wondering if Mom and Pop really grooved on beads and flowers in Central Park. This production excavates — after the 2009 New York revival clued them in — one of the best rock operas of the era. Brush away some of the dated elements and the musical still holds up, with layers of relevance accruing over the evening.

The plot is minimal. A “tribe” of hippies and high school dropouts converge on Central Park at the height of the summer of love. We get introduced to most of them — the dueling but friendly alpha/beta males Berger (Adam Quinney) and Claude (Ethan Hartsell) — and the women who love them: pregnant, well-meaning and ditzy Jeannie (Alison Vance) and political and rabble-rousing Sheila (Lauren Kivowitz).

We get brief glimpses of Claude’s home life, where instead of being the dreamy romantic from Manchester, England, he’s an ordinary kid from Flushing with conservative parents. When Claude gets his draft notice in the mail and his card after going down to the recruitment office for a physical, his friends urge him to burn his draft card. He can’t and agonizes over his decision. Much of the second act is a full-blown hallucination sequence, as Claude drops acid and freaks out over the future.

Within this framework, Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s book combined with Galt MacDermot’s music fill in the gaps with 40 numbers, all tuneful, several of them classics. For the audience, that means a quick pace, enjoyable variety and much toe tapping. For the cast, that means nearly everybody gets a lead vocal or two.

The cast is aided by an able band featuring Jay Galvin, Charissa Hamel, Ryan Hunter, Rick Maiani, Stephanie Miller and Jon Chapman. For this production’s size and budget, they acquit themselves well, creating a full rock sound without overwhelming everybody else. And it’s always much better than pre-recorded music, by far.

None of this would work if it were not for the mostly solid performances by everybody in the cast. Yes, there were a few dud notes here and there, but for the most part, these are performers with great voices, and with 40 songs, there were plenty of moments to shine. Claude’s “Where Do I Go” caps off the first act with its plaintive, sad tone; Sheila’s broken-hearted “Easy to Be Hard” featured some great moments from Ms. Kivowitz; Chrissy (Ms. Eve also starring) has a wonderful moment with “Frank Mills”; Emily Jewell, playing Ronny, bravely starts the whole thing rolling with “Aquarius”; and Michelle Williams comes out of nowhere in the second act to belt out “White Boys” as the character Dionne. And there are plenty more moments such as these.

Rounding out the cast is Carol Metcalf, Robert Byrne and Sean Jackson, playing the older generation, whether they be Claude’s parents or an inquisitive old couple.

For all its fun, “Hair” brings with it the angst of the generation who had realized that the system was against them, but didn’t realize the system would eat them up if they didn’t implode themselves.

The most telling scene from Saturday’s performance — the one that really reverberated across the decades — was Berger’s senseless ripping up of a shirt Sheila had bought for him. He did it for the kicks and didn’t realize the hurt he caused. One can feel the selfishness about to play out on a mass scale in the coming decades.

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost: $25 general, $20 students
Information: (805) 963-0408, www.centerstagetheater.org

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