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50 years later, 'Hair' still sends a message

For its 50th birthday, “Hair,” that once-controversial, irrepressible tribal love-rock musical, is getting a lively and joyful production by students of Ashland High School with shows starting Wednesday, May 2.

It’s hard not to love — or at least just smile frequently — when placed under its spell. At a dress rehearsal Saturday, the 24-member cast brought that exuberance to the stage, with Director Lenny Neimark predicting that interest has been so high, especially in these politically tumultuous and divisive times, that he predicted a sellout of all nine performances.

Nothing says “make love, not war” like this zany-tragic Broadway hit, which debuted at the height of Vietnam War protests, the psychedelic drug explosion, “free love” enabled by “The Pill” and millions of “generation gap” arguments between parents and their alienated kids.

In interviews, AHS student performers expressed gratitude about being in the unique and legendary musical, where they find they’re actually morphing into the peace-and-love tribe they depict on stage — and they find themselves facing some of the same issues they’re acting out in the play.

“‘Hair’ is still applicable today, as you saw when we (cast) went to the march against gun violence in this country,” says Audrey Cirzan, who plays the lead female, Shiela. “There’s still more work to be done and we teens are constantly criticized today for standing up for what we believe in.”

Though the “Hair” tribe and the ‘60s era looks fun, “No, I would not want to live there, because we’ve come so far now on civil rights. It opened our eyes about war and violence and now, here we are protesting guns. These were the seeds planted in the ‘60s.”

Asked if she had faith in today’s young people making similar big changes, Cirzan said, “Yes, I do. Everyone is so willing to stand up and do something now.”

Senior Preston Mead, who plays the zany, hilarious Berger, observes “It’s been interesting drawing the parallels between then and now and see the message they were trying to get across, as well as the flaws in the messages, then and now. It’s really nice to be part of something that has a message. The message is our generation rising up and informing the older generation about how the world works now, instead of the way it used to work — and right now, we are trying to change it for future generations.”

Is the cast becoming a tribe? “Yes and we’re having a ball doing it,” says Mead. “It was tough to get there in the beginning, but now we’ve become a tribe.”

Tribe member Julia Tobrock agrees, noting, “It’s such a blast. I love it so much. Every day, it’s a stress rehearsing and it was weird at first trying to be a tribe, but we’re so close now. This group of people love to spend time with each other and support each other.”

Tobrock says it’s sometimes been hard learning the very different culture they had in the ‘60s, especially surrounding racism.

Sophomore Ella Stringer plays Crissy, who, she says, brings “the pureness and innocence of the love revolution,” as seen in her pining for “Frank Mills,” a guy she just met who is wearing a motorcycle gang jacket and gave her his number, but she lost it.

“As soon as I found out they were casting for ‘Hair,’ I listened to the album and fell in love with it,” says Stringer. “My mom and grandma were both hippies in the ‘60s and helped me understand the struggles and why I’m attracted to it. On the first listen, I got full-body chills. I don’t know how. I was completely and totally excited, every song.”

Senior Sierra Milburn plays the chirpy and pregnant Jeannie, who got that way with “some crazy speed freak.” Like Shiela, she’s in love with Claude (Kyle Storie), who, being dogged by the draft, isn’t into loving anyone.

“We’re learning all about the Vietnam War and what teens were like and how relevant it is to now,” says Milburn. “Our protest against guns was really surreal. It was my first protest and helped me create understanding for my character. I feel we aren’t as different from them as we think we are.

“The material (in “Hair”) is so exciting and thrilling. It’s very easy to wrap yourself around the character. We have the same kind of internal angst, pain, indecisiveness and personal issues teens face and, at the core, we are the same.”

The play shows gender roles as they were half a century ago, says Producer Betsy Bishop. “It makes fun of every group and brings up the hypocrisy around how guys treated girls. We’ve changed our ways a lot and we think differently now.”

“Hair” was notorious for kicking down censorship doors with a fully nude romp and by open use of profanity and racial slurs then in common use. This production, of course, is “high school friendly,” has no nudity, no n-word and, thanks to Neimark’s in-person conference with original co-lyricist Jim Rado, many iffy words got changed.

AHS uses the new 2009 Broadway revival script. Like the original, it was a hit. The enduring popularity of “Hair” comes in part from how the musical or album played some part in so many lives, says Neimark.

“The community here absolutely gets it. People light up when they hear we’re doing it. So many parents saw productions long ago or listened to the album many times. What it says to me is that the songs are as important as ever and they communicate: take a stand, make your voice heard and tell the truth.”

The nine performances will be held May 3-13 with a preview at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, and two Sunday matinees (May 6 and 13) at 2 p.m. Shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (May 3, 4, 5, 10, 11 and 12) start at 7:30 p.m.

This production is rated PG-13 for mature themes, with high school appropriate language.

An 11-piece band of local musicians will play onstage. Some cast will mix with the audience at times. The audience is invited to a be-in onstage for a half hour before performances and are invited to wear hippie attire. It’s at Ashland High School’s Mountain Avenue Theatre at 201 South Mountain Ave.

Tickets are online at www.showtix4u.com or 866-967-8167; and at Paddington Station, Tree House Books and Music Coop. Tickets for reserved seats are $25; general admission is $20; students under 18 and seniors over 65 are $15. Reserved tickets are only available at www.showtix4u.com (general and student/senior also available online) or at 866-967-8167.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Photo by John DarlingAshland High School actors Kyle Storie, at left, playing Claude, and Preston Mead as Berger rehearse for a production of "Hair."