The cast of McKeesport Little Theater's production of "Hair," which opens Friday. (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
If You Go: “Hair”
McKeesport Little Theater, 1614 Coursin St., (412) 673-1100
When: Nov. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Ticket information: www.mckeesportlittletheater.com or www.showclix.com
Most of the cast of McKeesport Little Theater’s production of “Hair” knew very little about the musical – except maybe a popular song or two – when they were offered their roles.
At the center of the original musical, co-written by Pittsburgh native Gerome Ragni and James Rado, were issues surrounding the war in Vietnam, with a country deeply divided about the conflict and what America’s role should be.
But after researching and rehearsing since September, cast members came to agree with director Edward Bostedo that issues presented in the rock musical when it premiered in 1967 remain relevant.
That includes racial and sexual inequality and preferences, alienation, drug use, civil disobedience, politics, war, peace, pollution, and even how one defines and experiences love and family.
“Today we have those same controversial themes,” Bostedo said as the cast began its final week of rehearsals leading up to opening night on Friday.
In 1967, young men who were drafted to fight in Vietnam had no choice, unless they were granted a deferment, but to report for basic training and eventual deployment overseas.
Some burned their draft cards in protest or went to Canada or other countries, while others enlisted voluntarily or followed a family tradition to serve their country in the military, no matter what.
Bostedo said he went to see a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial when it was in Murrysville, and has incorporated elements into the MLT set.
“Two black spaces will become our own memorial wall, with names supplied by cast member,” he said. “We’ll also be projecting videos with news footage from the Vietnam War, plus events of the era such as the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy.”
Ron Clawson as George Berger (standing) gets up close and personal with Brian Boehmke as Claude Hooper Bukowski in McKeesport Little Theater's production of "Hair." (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
McKeesport Little Theater veteran Ron Clawson said he knew very little about his character George Berger, one of the leads in the show, until he started doing extensive research and considered how he could relate to the conflicts he faces as one of the leaders of a “tribe” of politically active, long-haired young people and his upbringing.
Clawson said his favorite musical number is “What a Piece of Work is Man.” He is among the actors most transformed from his day-to-day appearance for his role.
Also transformed is Brian Boehmke, who portrays Claude Hooper Bukowski. His conservative family pressures him to report for basic training, while he explores the uninhibited lifestyle of the tribe.
Boehmke said to get into his role, he considered several times in his life when he’s had an awakening --- “an ‘Oh, crap!’ moment” --- and recalled the panic and anxiety.
He said one of those was when he experienced a serious motorcycle accident that could have been disastrous. “I was laying on the ground thinking ‘Oh my God, this is happening.’ I could have died, but narrowly missed hitting anything critical. I had no control over it,” Boehmke said.
Boehmke said he brings the memory of that no-control moment to his character, who feels he has no control over his life once he decides to enter the Army and leave the tribe behind.
When not acting, Boehmke sells life insurance for a living, “so I talk about life and death with people every day.” He said his favorite number in “Hair” is “Going Down,” although he’s not even onstage for that part.
Taylor Anderson as Hud reflects the hippie lifestyle of the 1960s in his "Hair" attire. (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Although he graduated from McKeesport Area High School, Taylor Anderson said he did not realize the Coursin Street theater even existed until relatively recently.
Two years ago he was cast in MLT’s “Beauty and the Beast,” bringing with him experience from high school and other regional community theater productions.
Unlike his character Hud, who is anti-military and anti-war, Anderson said he was seriously considering a military career until he found out he has a medical condition that prevents him from serving.
Until he was diagnosed, Anderson said he played sports for 13 years, so can relate to some of Hud’s aggressive feelings.
His character is proud to be black during the emerging civil rights movement and racial turmoil. In the tribe, all colors, shapes and sizes are welcome. His vocals are featured in “Colored Spade.”
Anderson joins Clawson and others in pointing to an imagined conversation from Claude’s draft interview where Hud says, “The draft is white people sending black people to make war on yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people.”
Bostedo said the music is very challenging and the show includes more than 30 songs.
Through its evolution and productions over the years, including a 2009 Broadway revival, the song base has changed and grown. MLT’s production will include most of them, including one not frequently performed, Bostedo said.
Alexis Loiselle as Sheila is focused on love of fellow human beings in "Hair." (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Alexis Loiselle as Sheila and Mariah Kutchko as Jeanie are real-life friends who had lost track of each other until both realized they were back in the Pittsburgh area and reconnected.
Loiselle said when offered her role, Bostedo and producer Heather Atkinson explained about the sex, drugs and craziness of the tribe, but that Sheila, a political activist who has more conservative roots than the others, “is about love and unity, and that’s where I’m coming from. I’m a person who is in love with someone who does not love me back. I’m disappointed in humanity.”
She explained her character’s feelings by quoting from the song “Easy To Be Hard,” where the singer questions how people can be so heartless and claim they stand for social injustice while ignoring their friends.
Mariah Kutchko as Jeanie is concerned about pollution and air quality as she sings "Air." (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Kutchko also faces rejection as Jeanie, who is pregnant and madly in love with Claude, but the baby is not his.
“I love this show,” Kutchko said. “It was fun to have to learn a whole new show. In a lot of ways, Jeanie is kind of like me. She’s a little bit ditzy but cares about a lot of things.”
Robert Hawley-Potter portrays the free-spirited Woof in "Hair." (David P. Adams photo special to Tube City Almanac)
The sexual revolution is another theme addressed in “Hair,” with Robert Hawley-Potter’s character Woof embodying many of the issues.
“Hair” encourages exploration of one’s sexuality, which some considered risqué at the time. Various productions in the United States and abroad treated the subject differently so as not to offend their audiences. “(Being) gay was not OK at all, and Woof’s family brought him up Catholic,” Hawley-Potter explained.
He said he met Boehmke when he understudied him in “Footloose,” so heard about the show through him.
“Hair” cast and crew
“Hair” is directed by Edward Bostedo, with Heather Atkinson as producer, Kevin Milliken as music director and Liz Civello as stage manager.
Members of the cast are Brian Boehmke as Claude Hooper Bukowski, Ron Clawson as George Berger, Taylor Anderson as Hud, Robert Hawley-Potter as Woof, Alexis Loiselle as Sheila, Mariah Kutchko as Jeanie, Alex Stumpf as Margaret Mead, Ben Brody as Steve/Walter, Maya Fullard as Dionne, Mollie Rosol as Chrissy, Amy Cicci as Angela, Amanda Ransbottom as Abe Lincoln. The Tribe includes Jordan Smith, Ben Blinn, Blair Allen, Paige L. Moody, Shauna Fahad, Jessie Freuden and Laura Stumpf.
Bonnijean Cooney Adams is a former editor of the McKeesport Daily News. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published November 01, 2018.