Darnell Patrick Morris thinks that the groundbreaking and controversial rock musical that opened on Broadway in October 1967 is still relevant. As such, Ovations Theatre’s producing artistic director chose “Hair” for the musical theater education and performance program’s eighth- through 12th-grade production. Five performances are set for June 14, 15 and 16 at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington’s Kreeger Auditorium in Rockville.
Four years ago, Morris created Ovations as “a safe space where young people are able to work on shows they can relate to or that inspire them. Too often, our schools are doing just the classics—which for the record, I love and appreciate—but I find students are longing for opportunities with contemporary theater.”
Balancing the classics and contemporary works, the up-county native said, “gives our students the opportunity to learn from the shows that paved the way for modern musical theater as well as the new shows that are changing the way we think about what theater is.” Ovations puts on shows that may “require tough conversations, (focus on) sensitive subject matter and real-life situations” and encourage participants to “explore, create and grow as young artists.”
To date, said Morris, Ovations has “produced more than 20 shows, three teen summer intensives, three summer camps and countless workshops.” Among their “challenging shows” have been “Spring Awakening,” “Parade,” “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Carrie.”
“These shows deal with topics like abuse, sexuality, suicide, teen pregnancy, bullying, racism and discrimination. We spend a lot of rehearsal time working through the material to understand the complex or ‘adult-themed’ topics and relationships,” said Morris. “What we find is that even though the source material may have some ‘taboo’ situations, storylines or characters, the students actually either have encountered similar situations or know someone who has.”
Several factors influenced the selection of “Hair” that Morris made along with Ovations’ Managing Director Morgan Fannon and Associate Artistic Director Theresa Cunningham. “It’s a show that would not only stretch our students acting-wise,” he said, “but it also resonates with them, their values, what’s going on in the world and what they hope to accomplish in life: creating peace and love!”
“It is not new for Ovations to bring shows to our young people that relate to what is actually going on in their lives. While the original civil rights movement may have started in the ‘60s, we do know that history repeats itself,” Morris said.
At Ovations, he added, “young people can hone their voice and actually be heard. We endeavor to help young people fight for what they believe in and end hatred through love. Exploring ideas of identity, community, global responsibility and peace, ‘Hair’ remains as relevant as ever: It examines what it means to be a young person in a changing world.”
Morris said that he worked “really hard” with Choreographer Morgan Christina Thomas and Music Director Valerie A. Higgs “to focus on telling the story of our students through movement and relationships created onstage. We’ve split up a lot of the music to give each of our 47 cast members time to share with the audience who their character is.”
Among the stars are four Lakelands residents, all who have only seen clips of productions on YouTube. “I think it’s better that I’ve never seen it so I can make my character unique and not base it on anyone else’s,” said Matthew Rubin, the 15-year-old Quince Orchard High School (QOHS) freshman who plays George Berger. This is the fifth Ovations show for Rubin, who has been “doing theater since age 10” and aspires to an on-stage or behind-the-scenes career. “Berger is probably the most challenging character I’ve had to play,” he said. “My Berger will definitely be crazy and mess around a lot, but there will also be a sweet side to him. Beneath all the goofball he’s just a sweet guy looking to be loved.”
Jack Rosenberg, the 17-year-old Poolesville High School junior who plays Claude, has had roles in 10 previous Ovations shows. He plans “to play up (Claude’s) insatiable need to be accepted. The way I see it, Claude felt rejected by his family and their life of privilege; he wanted to live an unmaterialistic life. …. I think he ends up going into the army to feel like he belongs; he feels most accepted where people are encouraged to be devoid of individualism. More so than making him ‘weird’ or ‘unnatural,’ I want to emphasize him as an ordinary person, suffering from anxieties.”
Madelyn Fox, a 17-year-old QOHS junior who has performed with various companies and wants to study musical theater in college, takes on the role of Sheila. Fox feels her character “is unique because she tries to find the good in life through the hardships she faces within her community. She does everything she can to change the world for the better.”
“I will make Sheila my own,” Fox said, “by focusing on some of the issues in the world that are occurring right now. I find that ‘Hair’ doesn’t only consider what was happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but also many things that are happening right now. I want to use my voice to help those who are suffering today by raising awareness through my character.”
Sam Salem, the 16-year-old QOHS sophomore who plays Woof, has worked with Morris for seven years. “Woof is a devout Christian male,” Salem said, “but does a lot of the things that are frowned upon in his religion, which is pretty interesting to me. I will try to make him a mix of a priest and a party animal/fun guy.”
With the individual actors putting their own stamps on their characters, the Ovations production of “Hair” promises to be distinctive. What Morris loves about “Hair,” he said, ”is that no production is the same. While we have all the same source material, I feel the whole concept of ‘Hair’ is to focus on your ‘tribe.’”
Another distinction of the Ovations show, Morris said, is that “we’re finding moments, specifically in Act 2, to bring in our students’ own personal protests and beliefs to remind our audience that though this show is a time capsule of the 1960s, its messages, struggles and overall agenda are still prevalent—even now in 2019.”
Ovations Theatre will perform “Hair” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 14; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15; and 1 p.m. Sunday, June 16 at the Kreeger Auditorium at the JCC of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. Tickets are $20 online, $25 at the door. Visit ovationstheatre.com.