Arts & Culture

Groundbreaking musical ‘Hair’ returns to Wichita

Eden Richmond and Ashley Arnett star in “Hair.”
Eden Richmond and Ashley Arnett star in “Hair.” Courtesy photo

None of the cast members of the national touring company of “Hair” – coming to Wichita this week – were even born when that “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” changed the face of Broadway in 1968.

With angry, righteous and rousing anthems like “Aquarius,” “Ain’t Got No,” “Easy to Be Hard” and “Let the Sunshine In” – not to mention that once-notorious flash of group frontal nudity – the raucous rant created by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot skewered rampant materialism, imperialism, war-mongering and racial and sexual discrimination of the so-called Establishment.

Although the draft, hippies, flower power, mind-tripping and “dropping out” have receded into history, this 46-year-old musical is anything but dated, quaint or even nostalgic, say the 20-somethings now performing it.

“Absolutely, it’s relevant to today,” says Eden Richmond, who plays Sheila, a disillusioned college student who joins a tribe of free-thinking and free-loving hippies to try to change the world. “Our generation is also fighting to be heard, such as through the Occupy movement of the past couple of years. We feel a kinship with our characters because we share many of their beliefs.”

But in an ironic twist of economic fate, today’s youth aren’t seeking to free themselves from the Establishment so much as to actually participate in its benefits, says Erik Kopacsi, who plays Claude, a thoughtful romantic who is torn between what his parents expect of him and his ideals of “peace, love, freedom, happiness.”

“Our generation is dealing with increasing (income) inequality,” Kopacsi says. “There is a well-defined upper class. We know what it’s like to see people of privilege prosper while the poor get poorer. We know what we want. It’s not materialism, it’s security. That leads to wisdom.”

Joshua Wiles, who plays the irreverent free spirit Berger, says: “Like all young people, I feel that some things could be better. It would be irresponsible to think that we’ve got it all figured out, but the struggle goes on. We aren’t ‘hippie lite.’ The feelings are real.”

“Hair” will play at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday in Century II Concert Hall as the third of four offerings from Theater League this season. It will be a far different reception than the one that greeted the show when it first tried to play there in 1970.

Prodded by outraged local conservatives, Wichita officials voted to keep the show out of city-owned facilities and police threatened to arrest performers on any local stage if they dared to bare it all. The ensuing ballyhoo made Wichita the brunt of national jokes, and the Wichita stop was canceled.

But the following year, the tour did play Century II – along with the much more explicitly nude “Equus” and “Oh, Calcutta” – without incident. And in a sign of the times, Wichita State University theater students performed a 40th anniversary production of “Hair” – complete with nudity – in 2008 with nary a peep from the community.

In the show, Claude and Berger are the ostensible leaders of the happy hippie tribe, but Sheila is really the power behind everyone because she is devoted to action, says actress Richmond.

“The guys are the alpha dogs of the tribe, but Sheila is the one who is really involved. A lot of the tribe are talkers; she is a doer,” says Richmond, a British Columbia native who will always consider herself a “West Coast hippie at heart” albeit from Canada. Now based in Toronto, she is a songwriter who also loved performing in “Funny Girl,” “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

“Sheila has power. She uses sexual power on men, but she is also a nurturer. That’s why a lot of the tribe looks up to her,” Richmond says. “I identify with her because she is strong and so am I. We are both opinionated. Some days, I can’t tell the difference between Sheila and me. That’s both amazing and scary.”

When Wiles was cast asBerger, the Belleville, Ontario, native said his friends were astonished.

“They thought I was more like Claude, who is the idealist. Berger does and says all sorts of crazy things while I am more of an introvert. He’s really out there. He’s barking mad, sort of like Russell Brand of the 1960s,” Wiles says with a laugh. “He doesn’t have an inner voice telling him what the limits are. But that also makes him a lot of fun to play.”

Wiles, a singer/songwriter and guitarist with classical Shakespeare as well as rock on his resume, says what most helped him prepare for Berger was four years of improv.

“During the show, Berger gets to go into the audience and play with the people. It’s a lot of improv based on the way they respond. I’m having a ton of fun because I’m learning things about myself. It’s amazing what you will do to be true to the character,” Wiles says. “I don’t lose myself in the character but I’m not really me on stage. If I did any of that in real life, I’d be apologizing all over the place.”

For Kopacsi, his character of Claude is the most conflicted in the show because it all revolves around whether he will submit to the military draft and go to Vietnam or burn his draft card in protest of a war he considers immoral.

“Claude is a thinker who weighs consequences. He’s conflicted about the morality of blindly doing his duty or standing up for what he believes,” says Kopacsi, a Brantford, Ontario, native. “The lines get sort of blurred between how much is Claude and how much is Erik. I have strong opinions, but I’m not as politically active as Claude. I like to be informed, but I don’t like to stir the pot.”

Kopacsi considers himself a musician first because he has composed two one-act musicals and the score for the musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” But professionally, he has also performed leads in “Next to Normal” and “Rent.”

“I’m really enjoying performing. I’m giving myself a chance to see what comes of it,” he says of the “Hair” tour that goes through mid-May.

Meanwhile, Kopacsi says he has two favorite moments in the show: In Act I when Claude comes back from the induction center and ridicules the draft, and in Act II when he decides what he’s going to do about it.

“The first moment is a lot of fun, but the second becomes a huge revelation,” Kopacsi says. “It’s the most charged moment in the show and has a lasting effect on everyone.”

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