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American Theater Company's Re-imagined 'Hair'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on May 9, 2014 7:00PM

ATC's production of 'Hair.'

We went into the American Theatre Company’s production of Hair wondering why, in fact, the show needed to be re-imagined at all, as the small northwest-side theater was purporting to do with the infamous tribal-love rock musical. But the minute you step into scenic designer Keith Pitts' grungy warehouse and interact with the lovably shabby but also earnestly passionate haggle of hippi that make up the cast, it’s clear that ATC’s reinvented Hair is not the sanitized, Broadway babes version of productions past. (I’m looking at you, 2011 national tour.)

This time, we’re treated to a lot more context surrounding this group of New York City flower children in the late 1960s. The group is quasi-led by Berger (Sky Seals), the brazen high school flunkey who can’t reconcile his heart with his actions, and Claude (Zach Kenney), the sweet anglophile whose draft number is up next. Kenney shows us a truly conflicted Claude, a young guy who is generally scared of either path he faces: burn his draft card and go to jail, or be shipped off to Vietnam. Sheila (Ella Raymont), seemingly everyone’s love interest, gets a bit of backstory, too. She’s fresh from a protesting stint in Washington, and things didn’t really go well for anyone. But Raymont as Sheila is a dominant force, giving the show a refreshing new focus on a character who really should’ve been the gooey center all along.

This group of sweet kids doesn’t just prance around the stage, basking in the starshine and occasionally plotting a peaceful be-in. Instead, there’s palpable tension in the air as baton-thumping police peer through the grimy windows, ready to tear gas some teenagers at a moment’s notice. These kids are as scared as they are in love with love, and pulling off this dueling atmosphere is no easy feat. It helps that everything about the tribe, including the ragtag orchestra that seems a part of the ensemble and Brittany Dee Bodley’s detailed costume design, feels raw and real.

This new concept, however, does come at a price: The lengthy show lags at times, especially during the Claude’s far-too-long hallucination scene. And “Let the Sunshine In,” the show’s fun-loving closing number, isn’t the catchy, light-filled familiar tuner that we know it to be. The song has darker overtones under Austin Cook’s musical direction, in line with this new production. But if you’re coming to Hair and you’re not game for a frank exploration of love, sex, and now fear, then Hair—reimagined or otherwise—is not the show for you. But for the rest of us, ATC’s reinterpretation brings to light a hippie counterculture that shows us more than just free love and na├»ve, would-be revolutionaries—it’s a slice of American history, served with a hefty side of truth.

Hair runs through Sunday, June 29 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., 773-409-4125 or online.