Berger's Joint: "Hair," at the District Theatre through April 28 Print
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Monday, 15 April 2013 06:02

Chris Causer and Bryan Tank in HairUnder no circumstances would I publicly suggest that you indulge in mind-altering substances before seeing the District Theatre’s Hair. I would, however, recommend that you ask for a hit of whatever actor Chris Causer is high on – even if it’s just the exhilaration of performing – because, clearly, its side effects include having, and giving, the time of your life.

It’s tempting to say that in his role as Berger, the hippie tribe leader in this legendary counterculture musical, Causer isn’t acting so much as being. As the most physically and verbally flamboyant (and, in his loincloth and dance belt, the least dressed) of Hair’s free-lovin’ cast, Berger exudes the sort of outsize personality that tends to swallow everything in its path, and despite the character’s showboat nature, everything Causer does feels genuine. Speaking in a drawling, insinuating purr that frequently trails off into chuckles – he sounds like a Frank ’N’ Furter amused by his own Tim Curry impersonation – the performer seduces both co-stars and patrons even before bringing the house down with his early, spectacularly spirited “Donna” solo. (On Saturday, one of those patrons was nearly literally seduced, when Berger, to the woman’s obvious delight, climbed on her lap and embraced her before asking for 20 dollars.) But while the upbeat number is a terrific showcase for Causer’s considerable vocal chops, witty movements, and abject fearlessness, nothing about it feels “acted” in the traditional sense. Causer simply – or rather, “simply” – seems to have consumed the spirit of this charismatic, sexually charged flower child, and isn’t performing so much as releasing this spirit, freely and completely, through his pores.

Nina Schreckengost, Chris Causer, Kiarri Andrews, and Bryan Tank in HairYet in real life, after the first 15 minutes, Berger could easily be an incredible pain to be around; when crossed, as he is here by Bryan Tank’s draft-inductee Claude, his life-of-the-party geniality turns into a bitter sullenness, and Berger’s generally beatific nature can give way, in an instant, to sanctimony and meanness (the latter displayed when he cruelly dismisses a shirt made for him by Nina Schreckengost’s Sheila). And when viewing director Tristan Layne Tapscott’s production, that’s what makes you realize how grateful you are for Causer’s expansive, explosive performance joy. The actor is blazingly alive in his Act I “Going Down” routine, and a whole evening’s entertainment could be had merely by watching Causer’s playful on-stage (and off-stage) flirtations. He’s just as riveting, though, when Berger is silently judging Claude’s moral weakness, or trashing a room with long-concealed rage, or even just staring, vacantly and hopelessly, for a lost friend in Hair’s penultimate number. Hugely enjoyable even when Berger is at his least likable, Causer is being and acting in the District Theatre’s latest, and that’s to the production’s (and the audience’s) great fortune, because he’s singlehandedly turning a hit-and-miss presentation into one that absolutely shouldn’t be missed.

Beginning with designer Lindsay O’Brien’s lovingly imagined Woodstock-era costumes and Tapscott’s evocatively detailed scenic design (augmented by the incense wafting through the theatre), there are elements worth praising even before this Hair starts. And as soon as Cara Chumbley, with her swoony romanticism, leads her castmates in the “Aquarius” opener, you sense the show’s harmonies will be to-die-for great. They are ... or at least, they are when the orchestra isn’t overpowering the singers, which is what happened Saturday on about a third of the numbers. On several others – notably the sharply staged “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” – the cast was forced to yell to be heard, and the lyrics in the group songs, as a whole, sounded distractingly muddy. (Heaven knows that lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado don’t make it easy, but if you’re going to sing the thrilling, stream-of-stoned-consciousness phraseology in songs such as “Hair” and “Ain’t Got No,” you have to enunciate the hell out of those things.)

Nina Schreckengost and Kiarri Andrews in HairAs far as the solos went, several of them – notably Nicholas R. Munson’s “Sodomy,” Antoinette Holman’s “Four Score & Seven Years Ago,” and Kelly Lohrenz’s utterly charming “Frank Mills” – were beautifully rendered and just what you want from musical theatre: songs that truly sound sung by the characters, and not their portrayers. In a few too many others, though, I felt the strain to over-sing and/or over-act numbers that would’ve been stronger if delivered with more honesty and emotional simplicity – songs that didn’t call undue attention to their performers’ hard work, which consequently read as a bit forced. While Tapscott’s tribe members make for a convincing love-in collective (and you truly do feel the cast members’ affection for one another here), they don’t, as individuals, yet seem on equal levels of unforced truthfulness, and that’s a moderate mood-killer for a show that, for so much of its length, is such an openhearted bear hug of a musical. There are more than enough reasons to see the District Theatre’s Hair. Hopefully, as performers grow more confident and the orchestra finds more balanced sound levels, future audiences will be treated to more than more than enough.

 

Hair runs at the District Theatre (1611 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through April 28, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.