This past weekend I saw the Hollywood Bowl’s production of Hair. For those who don’t know, every summer the Bowl puts on a production of a popular musical for 3 nights only with an “all-star” cast after only two weeks or so of rehearsal. I have gone every year since moving to LA, and have previously seen Hairspray, The Producers, and Chicago. Back in 2011, as I watched Drew Carey limp his way through “(You’re) Timeless to Me” as Wilbur in Hairspray, I quickly realized that the Hollywood Bowl’s productions are not, shall we say, quality. They are quickly thrown together, cuts to the material are often made, and celebrities who cannot sing the roles are often stunt cast to sell tickets. Their musical still became an event I look forward to every year because it is really fun to picnic with a big group of friends, drink too much wine, sit in the nosebleeds, and enjoy the show for what it is with low expectations.
As soon as they announced this year’s show, I knew I was in trouble. While I did not have particularly strong feelings about any of the previous musicals I have seen at the Bowl (unpopular opinion: I actively dislike The Producers) I really, really like Hair. I actually saw it 6 times between 2008-2011. I first saw it at New York’s Delacorte Theater, my all-time favorite venue, starring Jonathan Groff as Claude. My friend Rachel and I camped out in Central Park for 6 hours for those (free! Shakespeare in the Park is the best) tickets, and the experience of dancing onstage with the actors during the post-show dance party on a beautiful New York summer night was worth every second. When the production transferred to Broadway I saw it first with the Tony-winning original revival cast and again the following year with a new cast. Finally, I saw the tour three times in Boston during my senior year of college, first in actual paid seats with friends and twice more, two nights in a row, for free through my part-time job working for Broadway Across America. It is a show I have very fond memories of and care about, which is why the Bowl getting its hands on it made me a bit apprehensive. My theater geek self was at odds with my normal person partying at the Hollywood Bowl self. These feelings only intensified when the cast was announced and featured Hunter Parrish as Claude and Benjamin Walker as Berger. I saw Hunter, who is best known for his role on Weeds, in both Spring Awakening and Godspell on Broadway, and Ben in the title role in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a really wonderful show that died way too soon, both on and off-Broadway. The cast also included Kristen Bell (Sheila), Amber Riley (Dionne), Sarah Hyland (Crissy), and Jenna Ushkowitz (Jeanie), all of whom are established singers. I began to have crazy thoughts: is the Hollywood Bowl show actually going to be GOOD this year? Ben as Berger in particular seemed like perfect casting, and my prior favorite experience with Hair was also at an outdoor venue. I quickly began to forget my rule about having low expectations.
Alas, despite my highest hopes, this production of Hair was just as messy as its Bowl predecessors. While being outside is very natural for the spirit of the show and really does add something, the Hollywood Bowl seats 17,376 people. The Delacorte seats 1,800. The Bowl is simply better suited for bigger, more theatrical shows. Hair is a much more intimate piece that relies on its character moments, and those simply did not come across as they should have in such a gigantic space. The choreography was expanded upon to fill the bigger stage, which was a completely understandable decision but ultimately did not work for a show that works best when it feels organic and unchoreographed. Unlike in previous years, I do not believe any full songs were cut to save time, but several were cut short a verse, although I am sure this was not noticeable to those unfamiliar with the show. The cast was, as in the past at the Bowl, very hit and miss. Amber Riley was fantastic- her powerful voice easily reached even those in the highest of the nosebleeds, and if she shows up on Broadway in the near future it would be very well-deserved. Sarah Hyland was adorable and well-cast, and took it completely in stride when her mic started dying during her big song, “Frank Mills”, not missing a beat when she was given a handheld mic mid-song. Jenna Ushkowitz committed to Jeanie, putting on a charming character voice and selling the character’s bright-eyed eagerness. On the flip side, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Bell both struggled a bit vocally. Hunter seemed hoarse and possibly sick, which was a shame since I have previously heard him in great voice and I think on a good day Claude would fall nicely into his range. Sadly, it was not his night, and I began to suspect the fact that most of the cut verses came from his songs was not a coincidence. I do think his acting was very good, and he clearly understood the character, but at a musical in a 17,000 seat venue, your acting can be Oscar-worthy and it still won’t work if your singing voice can’t cut it. Kristen Bell was simply, in my opinion, miscast. Vocally, I think she would have been better suited for Crissy or Jeannie, as her belt was not really strong enough for Sheila.
The most puzzling to me was how little of a presence Ben Walker’s Berger was in the show. Ben did a fantastic job on his big solos, particularly “Donna” and “Going Down”, and even threw in some LA jokes (“double double animal style Berger!”). In act two, however, it seemed that Berger mostly faded into the background. Act two is primarily Claude’s story, but in previous productions I have seen, Berger remained a strong personality throughout, and that just did not happen here. I do think the venue was partially to blame, because it is really, really hard for even the best actor to convey subtle character moments in a huge amphitheater, but the bottom line is that I was a little disappointed. It is also important to note that the cast of these productions has remarkably little rehearsal time, which is an inevitable factor in any shortcomings. Also, because I know everyone is curious, the nude scene at the end of act one was not cut, although none of the principal cast members participated and the screens projecting the show for those in the upper level went dark.
Although my feelings about this production were not affected by this hiccup, it is also worth mentioning that LA decided act 2 on the one night I see a show outdoors was a great time to end the drought. Easily ten percent of the audience left immediately at the first sign of rain, prompting Ben Walker to temporarily break the fourth wall (although one could argue Hair doesn’t have a fourth wall to begin with) and ask people to stay, announcing that ponchos were available. As I sat there in my Hollywood Bowl-provided poncho, I have never related to the lyrics of “Let the Sunshine In” more.
I genuinely hope the Bowl chooses a show I have little to no emotional attachment to next year. I think they could do a solid job with a show like Anything Goes, Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, Annie, or Thoroughly Modern Millie, none of which, to the best of my knowledge, they have done before. It would also help if they refrain from casting anyone I happen to adore. My theater-loving heart can only handle so much.