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Let your Hair down

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JULY 31, 2014 5:00 AM

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Before Book of Mormon became a scandalous Broadway sensation, there was Hair, the “love-rock” hippie musical of the ’60s that dared to stage drug use, nudity, an antiwar mentality, and an ethnically integrated cast. Oh, and a lot of hair.

“There had never been a musical like that on Broadway,” said John Cameron, the head of the University of Iowa acting program. “It’s certainly not a musical comedy; it’s a protest.”

Nearly 50 years after Hair ignited the “age of Aquarius,” a new generation of actors from the City Circle Acting Company — a Coralville-based community theater group started in 2008 — will produce its own rendition of the play, directed by Cameron. Performances will take place at the Coralville Center of the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St., starting Friday evening and running through Aug. 3.

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With lyrics composed by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, Hair follows a “tribe” of hippies in New York City as they find their place in the 1960s counterculture. Faced with everything from conservative parents to the war and the draft, this “haggle of hippies” — so called by an adult character in the show — protest the Vietnam War, stretch their sexuality, dabble in illegal drugs, and, of course, grow out their hair.

“When Hair was created, it spoke of its time to the people that lived it,” said Aneisa Hicks, who plays Dionne in the show. “With Hairspray [and Spring Awakening] it’s speaking about a time from a different perspective. But there’s something so time-capsule-y about Hair; I don’t know if other shows can touch it. After years of its being up, people still love it.”

Cameron said he has been a Hair fan since it first hit Broadway in 1967. As a high-school student, Cameron saw parents grimace about and kids cheer for the controversial new play.

“This show is my generation’s Rent. We went crazy for it,” he said. “We even staged some scenes for a high-school revue and got in a bit of trouble for it. … Today, my connection to the play is more intellectual than when I was 16, when it was about rebellion.”

Cameron’s adolescent admiration for Hair — which would later lead him to direct and act in numerous productions of the musical in New York — have helped the cast get into character,  actor Melissa Melloy said.

“It seems John Cameron may have been a hippie in the ’60s, and he shares his experiences with us often,” said Melloy, who plays Sheila in the show. “He’s gotten really emotional in rehearsals telling us what it’s really like in that time. Because we have him there to see what the true feelings were and how passionate the people were, it’s easy to adapt. It’s quite inspiring.”

While the bell-bottoms, colored shades, and floral patterns of the characters’ costumes make Hair an amusing period piece, the cast and crew said they want their performance to be about more than ’60s nostalgia.

“We’re in a political age in which we think things are being accomplished, so we’re relaxing a little more … It will hopefully remind people and push people that we can do more,” Melloy said. “People can still identify with these themes and images. Pushing people out of their comfort zone is excellent.”

Hair features several “uncomfortable” songs and scenes featuring racially or sexually charged language, drug use, political critique, and nudity that may still shock audiences today — even though Cameron left out the infamous group nude scene at the end of Act 1.

“At City Circle, we try not to shy away from controversial material — that’s part of who we are,” said City Circle producer Liz Tracey. “But John really knows how far to take it. For him, he’s not trying to go for sensationalism but find an important antiwar message.”

Hicks said she can relate to many of Hair’s themes as a young black woman whose father spent a year in Vietnam, and whose ex-boyfriend did two tours in Iraq.

“It brings you back to things happening right now,” she said. “I think [Hair] gets skewed, because people like to highlight the drugs and fun. But that was trying to go against the politics and straight-edgedness of the time, and the youth were saying, ‘No.’ ”

Despite the serious nature of some of the songs — including “Sodomy,” “Donna,” and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” — other Hair tunes have become anthems of positivity, such as Cameron’s favorite, “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” and “Aquarius.”

“ ‘Aquarius’ is the free spirit, the accepting spirit — the sign that embraces positivity and possibility,” Cameron said, echoing the famous lyrics, “Harmony and understanding/Sympathy and trust abounding.”

These Aquarian qualities are embodied in the show’s young cast, which is made up of approximately 50 percent City Circle regulars (including Melloy) and 50 percent UI theater students (such as Hicks), ranging in age from 17 to 26.

“Theater is theater, even if it’s on different levels,” Cameron said. “I think the word ‘community’ [as in community theater] is very important. It’s their joy and their desire to do something. I find that young people who are interested in theater are committed and enthusiastic no matter what they’re doing.”

Even though the show will only run for one weekend, Hicks said, the cast plans to make it count.
“It sucks you put in so much work, and you get four performances, but whether it runs once or 5 million times, you get the chance to tell a story for people,” Hicks said.

Cameron said this story, both in its time and now, is not always received well. But as with any strong cultural statement, he said, it’s divisiveness is a strength.

“I don’t think that Hair is for everyone; it has its own audience, and the people who love it will come,” he said. “I just hope they have a good time.”

Hicks shared his belief.

“My hope is that no one feels so-so about it,” she said. “I would like to put up a production that people love for a million reasons or hate for a million reasons.”

While Hair might make audiences squirm, Melloy said, the strength of the music, if nothing else, makes the show a worthwhile ride.

“You’ll be made uncomfortable in a really fun way that will blow your mind,” she said. “It’s a rare opportunity in the theater and outside.”


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