Starting Friday, Laurel Mill Playhouse pushes the boundaries with its spring musical, “Hair! The Musical”
“It’s a little risque for Laurel, but we thought we were ready for it,” said director Michael Hartsfield. “It’s one that hasn’t been done a whole lot in the community theater circuit.”
“Hair!” is about a group of friends, “The Tribe,” living a bohemian lifestyle in New York City, and deals largely with hippie counterculture, the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
When it debuted in 1967, the show’s frank nature, dealing with everything from race to drugs and sexuality, may have seemed shocking, but 45 years later, the issues have become less polarizing.
“Some of the things don’t seem as shocking as they must have seemed at the time,” said actress Kat McKerrow, who plays “hippie witch” Jeanie. “We’ve come a very long way on our acceptance of gays and black people; that’s all sort of changed.”
“I think most people at this point in 2013, it’s more nostalgic at this point,” Hartsfield added.
Hartsfield said that although there are drug references and instances of some brief nudity in “Hair!” the scenes are not intended to be provocative for the sake of being provocative.
“It doesn’t promote drugs,” Hartsfield said. “The nudity is a brief scene and we made it clear at auditions that people weren’t going to be required to be naked if they didn’t want to. We certainly didn’t want 23 people on the edge of the stage without their clothes on. It’s done pretty tastefully. That being said, it’s certainly not a show to bring your 5-year-old to.”
According to Hartsfield, who has directed the spring musical at Laurel Mill for the last five years, the challenge with staging a show like “Hair!” is remaining true to the script, while remaining respectful of the audience.
Just as the original script intended, Hartsfield said the Laurel Mill version of “Hair!” will include plenty of interaction between “The Tribe” and the audience.
“It’s definitely a positive that Laurel Mill is a small space,” Hartsfield said. “With this show, there is a lot of interaction with the audience.”
“You get the feeling you’re part of this group,” McKerrow added. “Tribe members go out into the audience and interact ... for the most part, you kind of feel like you’re up there with them.”
To achieve the balance between authenticity and respect, Hartsfield took some steps to make sure the musical remains tasteful.
“We had age restrictions on who could be in the show,” Hartsfield said. “We definitely made 18 the lowest possible age.”
While casting was limited by the age restriction, Hartsfield had no problem casting the part of Jeanie once McKerrow auditioned for the part. In addition to the fact that the two worked together on last spring’s musical, ”Ragtime,” another somewhat racy show, McKerrow seemed the perfect fit for the free-spirited, mystical Jeanie.
“It came easily but I think I can be a bit of a hippie anyway,” McKerrow said. “I listen to a lot of sixties music.”
But their similar taste in music and culture aren’t the only things McKerrow and Jeanie have in common.
“[She’s] extremely pregnant ... I’m pregnant also,” McKerrow said. “That made it pretty easy.”
Having directed “Ragtime” last year and now “Hair!” Hartsfield said he is developing a reputation for going “a little out of bounds.” But the director said he sees his style in line with what Laurel Mill is trying to achieve as a theater company.
“I definitely think Laurel has become more diversified,” Hartsfield said. “It’s a small theater that is trying to attract as many different people as possible. Anything from Agatha Christie all the way up to ‘Hair!’ ... Laurel is brave in that way ... they know people are going to be put off by some shows but [they’re] doing their best to attract as many different people as they can.”