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Moving past COVID, Asolo Repertory Theatre opens vibrant ‘Hair’ – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

With five understudies taking the stage and just a few hours of rehearsal after a week of quarantining, Asolo Repertory Theatre opened its COVID-delayed production of the groundbreaking musical “Hair” Tuesday night with little evidence there had been any problems.
The theater canceled two previews, the Nov. 20 opening night and another week of performances after one person tested positive for COVID-19, which then led to other breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated company.
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Let the sunshine in:Asolo Rep in Sarasota offers a fresh take on classic musical ‘Hair’
None of the company members became ill, and they continued to rehearse on Zoom during the week. The cast and understudies were finally able to gather together on stage for just a few hours Tuesday before the first performance.
You could hardly tell there had been any interruptions in this colorful and evocative production of the American “tribal love-rock musical” created by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and composer Galt MacDermot, who ushered in an era of youthful voices and contemporary music to Broadway in 1968.
The vivid direction and choreography by Josh Rhodes calls on the large cast to work together as an ensemble that never seems to stop moving, undulating, and rhythmically writhing to the beat of melodies that once shocked Broadway and still have something of an edge despite their familiarity.
At Asolo Rep, Rhodes has displayed a unique creative vision to breathe new life into such well-worn musicals as “The Sound of Music” and “Guys and Dolls.” He also staged a masterfully dynamic production of “Evita,” in which the designs and staging combined in breathtaking ways.
“Hair” comes close to that style thanks to the inventive junkyard playground set designed by Tony nominee Anna Louizos.
A giant eye, surrounded by painted remnants of trash bins, tires and other found objects, greets you as you enter the theater, suggesting Big Brother watching over the anarchic activities of young people singing “Aquarius” and “Good Morning, Starshine” as they gather in parks, protest the Vietnam War and push aside fears of adulthood and responsibility.
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Costume designer Dede Ayite echoes the woven and hand-made look of Louizos’ set by outfitting cast members in macramé vests, flower-power prints, torn and highly decorated jeans and silky, flowing tops. Garlands of flowers ring the heads of some characters.
Lighting designer Adam Honoré creates beautiful images, and Aaron Rhyne’s projections add context to the songs and stories. During a drug-induced hallucination of the leading character Claude, a warped image of a bald eagle flies against ribbons of red, white and blue before we are reminded of centuries of wars around the world.
Claude is played by Damon J. Gillespie, who may be familiar to some audience members from roles in several television series. He projects an earnestness that stands out from the crowd of Claude’s go-with-the-flow friends as he weighs what to do about his draft status. With a strong and compelling voice, he is playful during “Manchester, England” and “I Got Life” and heartfelt in the plaintive “Where Do I Go” and “Eyes Look Your Last,” which leads to the finale.
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There are some fine performances elsewhere from Becca Andrews as the pregnant Jeannie hopelessly in love with Claude; understudy Sophia Rose Byrd as the protest organizer and seemingly level-headed Sheila (who sings “I Believe in Love” and a moving “Easy to be Hard”); Jonathan Fleites, who plays a light-as-air Woof; a powerful Nora Schell as Hud, and understudy Matthew Skrovan as Berger, who leads “Going Down.” (The theater expects the full cast to return by later this week.)
These characters emerge from the Pack (instead of the usual Tribe) to sing mostly brief songs, some of which amount to little more than lists of sexual acts or drugs to take, all played in a lively style by an offstage band led by Christie Chiles Twillie.
As much as I can enjoy watching these performers, I didn’t connect to or care about most of the characters. The script, particularly as shortened for this 90-minute one-act version, doesn’t allow them to be much more than types. 
Rhodes does stir tender emotions in subtle ways that cut through the free-love spirit, with catcalls from angry neighbors and every mention of the draft.
And he also connects the show to today’s protests, from the fight for women’s and marriage equality to the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. “Hair” may be a product of its time, but it can still speak today for those ready to fight for a better world.
Book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermott. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Reviewed Nov. 30, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Through Jan. 1. The theater is following the #SafeArtsSarasota COVID protocols. 941-351-8000; asolorep.org
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