Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: 'Hair' returns 40 years later with anniversary tribute to Guthsville Playhouse

Tyler Fernandez, 19, of Bethlehem Township, Northampton County, wasn't yet born when what was known as "the American tribal-love rock musical" was making its indemnible mark in the history of Broadway in 1968. He wasn't even around in the summer of 1974 or 1975, when sold-out shows of this iconic musical, presented by Guthsville Playhouse, took the stage of Alumnae Hall's auditorium at Cedar Crest College in Allentown.

Come Friday at 8 p.m. and running through Aug. 17, the Freddy Award-winning Fernandez (for his 2012 role as Professor Bhaer in Notre Dame High School's "Little Women") will be playing Berger as a member of a new cast of "Hair," being brought back to life as a tribute to Guthsville's sold-out productions. He'll be joined by many in the cast who are former Freddy nominees and winners, including Parkland's Morgan Reilly (Sheila) and Elizabeth Stirba (Crissy), and Catasauqua's Kanyi Creppy (Hud). Other cast members include Dustin Brinker as Claude, Max Ferguson as Woof, Kimberly Sehn as Dionne, Cheryl Moritz as Jeanie, Jonas Bloomfield as Margaret Mead, Brooke Whitmire as Hubert, and Emma Gibson as Ronny.

"Hair's" audience will be a reunion of many who had anything to do with Guthsville Playhouse and the production of "Hair" in the mid-70s, from actors and actresses to directors, choreographers, technical crew and musicians. And it's all happening at the same location where it all began – Alumnae Hall at Cedar Crest College – thanks to producer Tom Ortalano of Center Valley and with a little help from some of those friends of the past.

Ortalano and his TKO Productions teams with high school classmate Susan Raesly of Nazareth and her Town Square Players to produce the 40th anniversary production of "Hair," which Ortalano refers to as "a one-time Lehigh Valley event."

Ortalano was a senior at Moravian College in Bethlehem and active with the Pennsylvania Playhouse when he made his Guthsville debut as Berger in the 1975 production. Fellow classmate Sal Ritz of Bethlehem Township, who's serving as technical director, played opposite Ortalano in the role of Claude. Ritz had auditioned for Broadway "Hair" director Tom O'Horgan in 1977, straight out of college and hoping to land a role in the first revival of the original production.

"Hair" director this time around is native Allentonian Mark Stutz, who directed such Guthsville shows as "George M" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and performed in "Chapter Two." Music direction for "Hair" is by June Thomas, with staging and choreography by Kelly Jean Graham.

"Hair" was conceived by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, two struggling New York actors who, according to an original program book, passionately scribbled their dedication to non-violence, love, exploration of the senses and a demonstrative rejection of materialism with notes and drawings on brown paper bags, napkins and old envelopes. It was when they connected with composer Galt MacDermot that "the free-style, 25-character folk-rock-oriented musical about a tribe of loveable kids who smoke pot, burn their draft cards and enjoy an infinite variety of sexual role-playing" changed Broadway forever with such songs as "Aquarius," "Easy To Be Hard," "Where Do I Go?" and "Good Morning Starshine." Joseph Papp brought the musical to his New York Shakespeare Festival at the downtown Public Theatre for a limited, eight-week engagement and an immediate sell-out. Chicago millionaire Michael Butler picked up from there and produced "Hair" for Broadway's Biltmore Theatre in April 1968, but not before bringing in director Tom O'Horgan to give it a new dimension.

A recent conference call with Ortalano, Ritz and Fernandez revealed that "40 years late, the idea of doing ‘Hair' was a bucket list thing" for Ortalano, who admitted he never produced a show before this project. Brainstorming meetings held at a nearby Panera Bread with former classmates Ritz and Raesly brought up either doing "Hair" or "The Music Man." In the end, the decision was unanimous – 'Let's do it ('Hair'), and let's do it on its anniversary at Guthsville.'

"Hair" will be performed as the original show and actual script, Ortalano explained, calling it "a major nostalgia piece that's still viable today, with the same topics still being argued. ...It's a period piece to when Sal and I did it. Back then, the draft came to an end." It is his hope that the summer production "will be about tuning in and on to now."

And yes, there was nudity in the Guthsville productions of "Hair," according to Ortalano.

"Then we considered it as a statement," he explained. "The cast back then was younger and a few under 18. BUT back then, there were no social mediums that made nudity taboo or restrictive. We were all of ages from 15 to 25, bearing all. It was at random where the audience members dictated who was doing the nude scene that evening. If Mom was there, I would not. If cousin Sue was watching, I would bear it all. Honestly, for me, it was an experience that opened all the inhibition doors for me."

Fernandez played the role of Berger last November with the Westminster Players of Rider University. He said because it was strictly a student-run production, the nude scene was not allowed at school.

"But I believe that it is a statement," he said. "The way that the scene is directed isn't to be naked just because. It's real. It happened. This scene is so powerful because the hippies did this. The sexual revolution is a huge part of 'Hair.'"

Ritz said he was challenged in bringing technology up-to-date in the theater space, where he found nothing had changed from the way he remembered it with a seating capacity of 500. Back then, he said, there was a 6-channel sound board. For the new production, he secured a 23-second newsreel clip from the early 70s to be shown at the start of the production as historic background for younger members of the audience as it shows protest marches against the draft.

Ortalano said he's "doing things differently with a fresh approach" in the area of special effects for the show's 40th anniversary tribute. He's had the walls of the auditorium covered in a special Central Park image wrap provided by 3M to make the audience feel as though they are sitting and watching the production in its original setting.

"Everyone at Cedar Crest has been so accommodating to us," Ritz said, "allowing the show to be the perfect opportunity to relive moments in our lives."

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Children will get their moments in the spotlight as they portray jungle animals for Allentown Public Theatre's production of "The Jungle Book," beginning Friday at 6 p.m. and running through Aug. 17, at Fellowship Hall of St. Luke's Lutheran Church, 417 N. Seventh St., Allentown.

Based on Rudyard Kipling's beloved stories, the play is a modern adaptation by Tim Kelly as it centers on "the man-cub" Mowgli, who was raised by wolves in a jungle in India. He's assisted by the animals in learning the laws of the jungle, except for the fearsome tiger Shere Kahn, his sworn enemy. As the play opens, Great Wolf engages children in the audience to help set the mood of the jungle.

Cast members are Justin Ariola as Baloo the Bear, Bill Gibson as Shere Kahn the Tiger, Beth Kressin as Kaa the Python, and Richard Warmkessel as Great Wolf. Kate Hughes, who played over-the-top naughty boy Lampwick in last season's "Pinocchio," is Bagheera the Panther and The Monkey Ruler. Mowgli is played by youngest cast member, Teague Fernandez, a recent graduate of Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts and former Touchstone Theatre intern.

Director Marcie Schlener, who directed "Pinocchio," said she had her all-adult cast work on physicality and research the movements of the animals they were portraying. The cast also delved into the roles that animals play in Indian folklore. Kipling (1865-1936) was born in India and spent his first five years in Bombay, hearing traditional Indian stories and nursery rhymes. From the monkey god of Hindu myth, Schlener said, comes Kipling's character of The Monkey Ruler, for example.

Schlener's jungle is green in more ways than one. Her tech crew used recycled cardboard and brown paper for cutouts of leaves and vines, recycled paper for flowers and repurposed fabric for costumes.

The show is free for children age 12 and under; pay-what-you-will for adults and teens.

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The 34th annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire is under way Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Oct. 26 in northern Lancaster County and boasts a complete reconstruction of its human chess match stage arena. According to a release, the $400,000 project has state-of-the-art sound, ground and bench seating with clear sight lines, and stunt-grade Astroturf for the actors performing rolling, diving and falling stunts. The arena will double as a concert venue during summertime months.

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