MINNEAPOLIS — The artists at Theater 55 believe that, in its way, their staging of “Hair” is just as subversive as the original production that thrilled and shocked audiences a half-century ago.
It’s not that the anti-establishment rock musical is newly resonant in a deeply polarized country. Or that this rendition adds an improvised divertimento about border walls midway through the first act. It’s the casting: Claude, the restive leader of a tribe of free-love hippies, is 53. The irreverent Berger is 59. Woof, who sings the praises of all things carnal, is 71.
This joyful staging is the first by Theater 55, a new Twin Cities company that celebrates elders as artists. And it requires more than an average suspension of disbelief. The 26-member cast singing about the Age of Aquarius is distinct for its abundance of unapologetic wrinkles, dad bods and artificial joints. When the men wax ecstatic about their “shining, gleaming, streaming” locks, it’s hard not to notice the receding hairlines and hair that’s more salt-and-pepper than flaxen and waxen.
And that, they might tell you, is the point.
“We’re not trying to pretend that we’re twentysomethings,” said Brent Berheim, who works for a Minneapolis financial services company by day but will complete the last of 11 performances this weekend as Claude. “Yes, the show is about youth, but it’s also about an environment and a time. We’re trying to see if the audience is willing to let go of superficialities.”
Richard Hitchler, Theater 55’s founder, spent 20 years running a company producing plays by and for children in St. Paul. When his research told him that baby boomers are a significant proportion of theater audiences but a fraction of those working on the stage, he mulled starting a new company to fill the void.
Bicycling past the Minnesota History Center one day and noticing a banner promoting “The 1968 Exhibit” cemented both the idea for the theater and its inaugural production. Tams-Witmark, which licenses the show, had no problems with the nontraditional approach. So the 53-year-old director and his collaborators scraped together a modest $46,000 budget, rented a theater and crossed their fingers.
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Like his youthful performers, the “Hair” cast has varying levels of stage experience. Some have plied the community theater circuit for years or have music or dance credits. Some had never before been onstage; one wasn’t certain how an audition worked.
“Whether they’re youth or older,” Mr. Hitchler observed, “there’s still the same insecurities, the same questions and the same sense that if you open your mind and your being to new adventure, you’re going to learn something. And we’re never done learning.”
One thing the company has learned since rehearsals started the Monday after Thanksgiving is that the show still has the ability to touch a nerve. Mr. Berheim tells of some cast members choking up rehearsing a scene in which his character agonizes over burning his draft card. Angela Walberg’s father, who served in Vietnam, can’t bring himself to watch his daughter perform the lead female role of Sheila, which would remind him of returning home after the war and being called a “baby-killer.”
For Rod Kleiss, the septuagenarian who plays Woof, “Hair” has resurrected long-forgotten memories. In 1968, he was in the Navy, stationed near San Francisco. He credits experiences in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood — the epicenter of the hippie movement — for his eventual decision to seek conscientious objector status.
“I almost didn’t audition,” Mr. Kleiss said. “I watched some YouTube videos and I saw so much strutting around by these cocksure young guys. But we’re old. We don’t have that focus. For us, this show is about something else.”
In the argot of “Hair,” the company has become a tribe — one with a purpose. At 73, Melba Hensel is the oldest member of the cast. After taking a 38-year break from performing, following high school theater and a career as an engineer, she returned to the stage in 2004 and is a regular in her suburb’s community theater productions.
But, she said, “unless my husband is involved, I’m 20 to 30 years older than anyone else in those shows. Here, I’m only a couple years older.”
“We’re making a statement,” said Brenda Starr, 70, who shook off a heart attack a month before opening night to appear in the show. Ms. Starr lived through the civil rights movement and sees Theater 55’s work as another front in the battle for social justice.
“We’re making a statement,” she said. “We’re not willing to accept the status quo and the social constructs about aging. We’re not people to be put away or dismissed.”
“Hair” infatuated critics when it opened on Broadway in 1968, and cover versions of songs from its score, like “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine,” became staples on the radio.
Away from New York, some audiences were taken aback by the musical’s language and frank depiction of sexuality. But over time, the show became a modern classic; the 2009 Broadway revival was a Tony-winner, and the Public Theater, where “Hair” had its first performances, gave a party for the show’s 50th-anniversary. NBC announced a 2019 live telecast of the musical, but those plans were scrapped this week.
At Theater 55, “Hair” has sold out many performances in the 140-seat space in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which, abutting the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, was a counterculture hub in the 1960s. Mr. Hitchler tells stories of veterans’ groups tearing up and crowds rising to their feet, joining the company to sing “Let the Sunshine In” at the show’s end.
That gives him hope that Theater 55 could grow beyond its initial production, toward a future that would involve more stage performances, classes and residencies for older theater artists.
When it comes to “Hair,” however, one question has followed Mr. Hitchler since he announced the nontraditional cast: What about that nude scene that sends the show into intermission?
He staged the first-act finale two ways — one for cast members at ease doffing their costumes, one for those less comfortable. Individual performers make decisions performance by performance and a sign in the lobby scrupulously advises that the show contains “adult material, language and possible nudity.”
Mr. Hitchler maintains that, for his more seasoned actors, it’s not always simply a matter of modesty.
“To be honest,” he said, “not everyone can get undressed that quickly.”