“This is our crowning achievement,” Mark A. Rhea told me the day after I had seen Hair at Keegan Theatre. I saw the show on a Wednesday night, at one of the performances that had been added to a run extended through Apr. 27th. The house was full and very enthusiastic.
The reviews have been similarly glowing. On DCTheatreScene.com, Jeffrey Walker said that “Flower power is in full bloom at the Keegan Theatre and it’s pretty damn groovy.” Jane Horwitz in The Washington Post proclaimed that the Keegan production proves that “the musical Hair can work in a small space and galvanize audiences as if it were still 1968.” On Facebook, my husband posted: “I was blown away by Keegan’s production of Hair. The cast is uniformly strong. (Josh Sticklin was born to play Berger!) The staging is wonderful. (LOVED the use of the ropes!) I was totally surprised at the incredible emotional payoff of the final scene. I really didn’t expect to cry, but I did. BRAVO!”
Rhea is Keegan’s Producing Artistic Director and its Founder, so his perspective on the production’s place in Keegan’s 17 year history is unassailable. But he was speaking more specifically about his pride as the production’s co-director. He directed this production with the company’s Associate Artistic Director, Susan Marie Rhea. “We did it together,” he stressed; “Susan and I collaborated throughout — as well as Jake Null, Music Director, Rachel Dolan, Choreographer, and her assistant Ali Crosby, as well as the rest of the artistic team. It was a full team effort. Can you tell that I’m proud of this show and my artistic team?”
I had dropped by while the company was working on the piece and noticed that the husband and wife co-directors had a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. “I’m almost delirious with fatigue,” Susan Rhea told me at that late rehearsal, underlining the huge amount of effort needed for a company with limited resources to tackle such a massive project.
To illustrate his point about the team effort, Rhea told me about a particularly unexpected instance of collaboration. There is a scene during which the tribe is tripping. (For the few readers who may not know anything about Hair, its subtitle The Tribal Rock Musical might provide context to my previous sentence.) The sense of a hallucinatory experience is achieved in part through the use of a black light interacting with white costumes. So where did that idea come from? Lighting Designer? Costume Designer? One of the two directors? “The ‘trip’ was an idea our Hair Stylist Craig Miller had at a production meeting. We were unsure what to do, but he gave us this idea. After discussing it, we all said, ‘Hell, yeah!’”
In a different example of team-playing, I learned from a Facebook post by actor Jon Townson, a member of Keegan’s Resident Company, that he was sitting in on drums the night I saw the show, covering for a band member who couldn’t play the added performance.
During our conversation, it was apparent that Rhea’s pride was in large part due to a feeling of having discovered satisfying solutions to the demands of a script that is not only iconic and familiar to many, but also presents numerous challenges. To begin with, “it is a protest musical trying to get a point across. But we tried really hard not to make it preachy.”
It’s also heavy on music. The first 20 minutes or so are one number after another, and it’s a while before anything resembling plot shows up. “It’s so fucking hard. It’s not linear.” Challenges included clarifying some of the relationships between the characters and establishing a “through-line” for Claude, whose dilemma about how to respond to a Vietnam-era draft notice is the core of the story.
After I mentioned that I’ve had my beloved vinyl album of the Original Broadway Cast Recording since 1970, Rhea said that “a lot of people have it, a lot of people listen to the music.” (The score includes “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine,” and “Let the Sunshine In” among its more familiar songs.) The night I saw the show, I told Mark that the line “Two Hundred and Fifty-Six Viet Cong captured” from the song “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” always brings back in my mind the constant, daily body counts we’d hear on the nightly news during the 1960s. Reacting to that observation, Rhea confided that it is his favorite song in the show and spoke about how the piece “brings back so much stuff to people who came up in that time.” He talked about members of the audience old enough to have remembered those days and how much it means to him when they are visibly moved by the production.
Neither of the co-directors had seen the play staged before. Rhea told me that someone said to him, as the project developed, that it is people who have never seen it before who bring the most to Hair. “They bring something different to it.” Hair is not a cookie-cutter kind of play, Rhea asserted and added, “I’m a very passionate man. Susan is a very passionate woman. We tried really hard to put our own feelings into it.” As we talked about some of the more striking directorial flourishes, Rhea asserted that “there are a lot of really little things, too, we did as directors. We really did do a lot.” One of the touches I loved was an allusion to Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” an effect that’s clever, but simple. Rhea said that their approach was “not flashy. First of all, we can’t afford that. But also, that’s not our thing.”
Discussing some of the choices that give the Keegan production its distinctiveness, Rhea mentioned “Don’t Put It Down,” which is cleverly reimagined as a twangy country number to an extent greater than I’ve ever seen or heard before. It’s sung on the upper level of the two-tiered set, while, below, a striking image (which I won’t spoil here) is juxtaposed poignantly against the song. The production also includes songs that aren’t on the original cast album and therefore aren’t familiar to me the way the bulk of the score is. Sometimes, the familiarity you have with favorite musicals can keep you from fully embracing a revival. Other times not, as here, exemplified by “Easy To Be Hard.” The unforgettable Lynn Kellogg rendition receded for me as I was totally entranced by what Caroline Wolfson’s Sheila did with one of my favorite songs in the show.
There is an image in the final sequence that we also discussed, involving Paul Scanlan as Claude. Again, I really want to avoid any spoilers, so I won’t describe it (go see it for yourself!), but it was another instance of a decision that, as Rhea put it, “if someone has done it, I don’t know about it. It’s a very emotional take on it. We go darker with it.” (That said, and the power of the piece notwithstanding, it’s a lot of fun, has a lot of wonderfully comic aspects, and several numbers — “Air,” for one — that might have an underlying darkness are thoroughly delightful.)
Rhea talked about how important it is for Keegan to find the right group of actors, to weed out the people who won’t coalesce into an ensemble. The Rheas were working with a young cast of twenty-three. (The band numbers nine.) Rhea stressed the importance of the production’s Dramaturg Lauren Miller, who immersed them in the era of the play — “they had so much information as far as the history of it.” And that young cast “bought into it full out. They are wonderful kids, wonderful people, we are so blessed.” Referring back to the resonance the piece will have for those of us who were alive then, Rhea told me that he said to the cast, “When you get an audience, and you see these people who are crying, who are becoming emotional, you’ll know why it’s important to tell their story the right way.”
Rhea responded to the “why now” question by pointing out that Hair fits into their season and is an apt follow-up to The Best Man, the Gore Vidal play written and set in the early 1960s that is about American politics and the consequences of what can happen “if we don’t have the right person in charge.” He also made the point that the play itself, the music, “is very relevant. It’s never too late to go back and remember, so we can go forward in a more thoughtful way.”
This is an exciting time at Keegan. The company now owns its space. (“That’s awesome,” Rhea said.) They’ve bought Church Street Theatre, which earlier had been New Playwrights Theatre and later was where Keegan got its start back in 1997 with a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Keegan has embarked on a capital campaign to renovate the space, making it ADA compliant, increasing the rest room capacity (go to see Hair, you’ll know what I’m talking about), and supplementing office and other space. Rhea told me that all is copacetic with their neighbors. “There’s no discord there; there’s really good support. We’re feeling pretty good.” The renovation will be extensive, rendering the theatre dark for a period of seven to nine months. It should begin around the first of July. Rhea is in the midst of doing a lot of work — interviewing contractors, dealing with zoning issues, getting permits. And, of course, raising funds.
Extended to April 27, 2014
1742 Church Street, NW
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $37 – $42
Thursdays thru Sundays
All performances are SOLD OUT
For waitlist. email [email protected]e.org.
No, no, no, I said I’m not a spoiler. Let me just say that it is My Conviction that you should go to see Hair at Keegan Theatre. If you’ve missed your chance because the run has sold out, then maybe you could also talk to Margaret Mead, I mean, Mr. Finnegan, about becoming a subscriber to ensure that you aren’t shut out next time.
All remaining performances are sold out. To get on the waitlist, email [email protected]
[For the record, Mark Rhea and I acted together in WSC’s 2003 production of Much Ado About Nothing, and Keegan was in residence at WSC’s Clark Street Playhouse during my time as Artistic Director of WSC.]