Gene Bua Theatre

Thirty-two years ago, never would I have guessed, as I took the stage for the first time as Woof in the rock musical Hair, thrilled to be shocking random old ladies nightly with my solo number “Sodomy,” that some three-plus decades later I would be sitting in an audience, one thigh about the size of my waist at age 22 and my head currently shaved completely bald to play Kenneth Halliwell in Nasty Little Secrets. Truthfully, no one back then would have convinced me for a second that I would survive to be 53 and watch the turning of the new century, let alone to be sitting here ready to take to my computer and review the same show which helped define my career both for better and worse in my early 20s. To add to the sting of those speedily passing decades, this time out Hair features an all-teenage ensemble whose castmembers would not be born until sometime in my own mid-thirties. Time and tide and all that crap. Still I had to resist the temptation not to get onstage at the end and join the current company members rocking out to “Let the Sunshine In.”

Originally Hair gave longtime employment to a lot of exceptionally talented people and provided them with a chance to pull out all the creative stops. Thankfully for us Hair purists, the musical now returns to the Gene Bua Theatre in Burbank with yet another exceptional cast. Populated by a group of admittedly cherubic working TV and film actors aged 15 to 21 (with a set designed by 14-year-old Jacob Chase and the piece delightfully energized by the both tightly and sprightly direction of Opposite Sex star Allison Mack), these kids have mostly known one another for years. JerBear Productions was founded three years ago by three self-proclaimed “psycho-maniacs” at an In ’N Out Burger and, with two other summer productions under their belts, an innocently pirated Rent in 1997 and last summer’s Chicago, the breathtakingly gifted kids of JerBear gratefully decided to tackle Hair.

A couple of seasons back, another company in L.A. revived Hair and, although the production was imaginative and extremely well received, it ultimately made me sad. Although the cast was also capable, the original spirit of cohesion we shared was glaringly missing. It was as though each actor was busy getting lost into his own invisible boundaries, performing in 30 individual one-man shows rather than becoming a tight and inseparable ensemble. When they performed the classic and originally unprecedented nude scene, it now seemed more aimed at exhibiting their gym-buffed bodies rather than simple people saying, “Here we are… and this is how vulnerable we are willing to be so that you’ll listen to the urgency of what we have to say.”

Not so with the JerBear Hair, as it will always remain to me. These kids, out together on interviews vying for the same roles for many years, have become the true “tribe” that other company of two years ago missed experiencing. Led by a knockout 17-year-old talent named Jeremy Lelliott as Burger, obviously singlehandedly the heart and soul of the JerBear Hair, this is the first revival cast who “gets” what writers/original stars James Rado and the late Gerome Ragni meant to say all along. Quickly overlooking that this revival features a lot of strikingly beautiful Hollywood kids (hey, didn’t our first productions, too?), this is still a quintessential Hair, filled with enough energy and love and respect for one another to make all us old farts rest a bit easier knowing the future of theater will be in hands as prematurely knowing and capable as these. With the notable exception of Lelliott and fellow tribemember Josh Burdick, there aren’t a lot of strong trained singers in this company (which made me wish JerBear had popped for at least one hand mic to be passed to the soloists during numbers), but what they lack in vocal strength they easily make up for in ebullient dancing and honed acting skills which belie their rather condensed collective age.

Lelliott is perhaps the most likable Burger of all time, immediately winning us over with his effervescent rendition of “Donna.” His portrayal is so genuinely sweet and openly unguarded that the egotistical trangressions of the character are quickly overlooked. John Christian is a suitably confused Claude, bringing a still childlike porcelain physical perfection to the character which makes his descent into unwilling soldier ready to die in Vietnam all the more poignant. Martha Raye-successor Laura Roth is a special standout as the preggers Jeanie, as are Phillip Attmore as Hud, Katherine Brunk as Sheila, Liz Maguire as Crissy, and Jeremy Hogan in a show-stopping turn as the crossdressing Margaret Mead. Then there is Brandon Johnson as Woof, a character which, considering my personal history, I tend to scrutinize more than any other. In this case, I gladly pass on my Woof wings to a charming, infectious successor; Johnson’s Woof is everything it should be and much, much more because of his real age and what that brings to the role of the goofy young mascot of the tribe. Shannon Mack, Troy Schreck and Stephen Lelliott must also be commended for their work on keyboards, guitar and percussion, respectively, as do all the other incredibly gifted crack team of youthful performers who make up JerBear Hair’s committed Xanadu Tribe.

While becoming a classic, in many ways this musical has not held up well in time. But I must admit that the inherent problems with its predictable and rough-edged book that are so obvious today were something we realized and dealt with back then as well. Hair was great fun and an outrageous innovation which opened doors for far more artistic freedom on stages than almost any other musical event which ever preceded it, but it never had a great book — just an infectious spirit, haunting music by Galt MacDermot no one could possibly stop humming for days after seeing the show, and a message that, while horribly simplistic, still made people think.

But above all, Hair did something no other job has ever done for me. Granted, theaterfolk make some amazing friendships on the road, working with people who stay in your life for many years to come, no matter how peripherally. But for all veterans of Hair, we have stayed as a kind of tribe, just like the aforementioned naive material originally suggested. We rehearsed for months, including sensory exercises that explored each other’s minds as well as bodies. We spent entire weekends together, ate together, cried together, laughed together, occasionally slept together, and certainly also tripped together with frightening regularity. We truly became a family. To this day, Hair reunions are frequent and people who have done the show talk to one another about their days in the Boston tribe or the Chicago tribe rather than this cast or that cast. Now 32 years later, Hair has added a whole exciting new generation to our aging ranks and what a breath of fresh air the kids of the JerBear Hair Tribe are. Welcome, kids, to the real Age of Aquarius. Call (323) 930-9304.

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