Just when you think our society has evolved beyond the concerns voiced in the 1967 Galt MacDermot musical Hair, with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, we run into Ferguson, Mo. On TV, there's an uber-militarized police force aiming armor-piercing weapons at unarmed civilians, and you suddenly have an urge to put on a headband and dashiki and take to the streets.
It seems we're never far away from mindless violence of all kinds, foreign and domestic. Which is why it's good that Blank Canvas Theatre is going to "Let the Sun Shine" on this show again for the next couple weeks. Although this production has its flaws (and only a nanosecond of nudity), there's enough radical spirit and go-for-broke youthful energy to light up the stage, and maybe a few bongs.
The plot, such as it is, is wrapped around two dudes, the irrepressible, loincloth-wearing Berger and his pal Claude, a guy from Flushing, Queens, who fancies himself a lad from Manchester, England. While Berger has effectively tossed off all his conformist trappings, seeking drug highs and sexual encounters with equal verve, Claude is more conflicted — even to the point of not being able to burn his draft card.
The boys and their tribe of hippie rejects have a lot to say, right off the bat, about their counter-cultural lifestyle. But the BCT production gets off to a rather flat start by not finding a distinctive attitude and tone for each of the first few opening pieces. Despite Joanna May Hunkins' powerful rendition of "Aquarius," the staging of that iconic opening number comes across like ditchweed instead of killer ganga.
A few of the ensuing songs are reeled off with little context, so it's hard to connect with the tribe's anthem to pharmaceuticals ("Hashish"). And the juicy ditty "Colored Spade" gets lost in the shuffle when Devon Settles as Hud riffs on the various derogatory slang terms for African-American before he declares himself "President of the United States of Love." One bright spot in that span is Becca Frick who, as pregnant Jeanie, sings "Air" with fatalistic wry humor.
Happily, about halfway through the first act, the ensemble starts to catch fire. It's during "I Got Life," when Claude and the tribe flip the bird at Claude's scolding parents. Then Sheila (Jessie Cope Miller, who doubles as choreographer) expresses her frustration with her heartthrob Berger in a rich rendition of "Easy to Be Hard." And she later does a fine job with "Good Morning Starshine."
Along the way, Trey Gilpin as Woof adds a dash of warmth as the cuddly Mick Jagger fanboy (and wannabe buttboy), and Neely Gevaart's Crissy croons a sweet tribute to a Hell's Angel in "Frank Mills." Due to apparent head mic problems, Tonya Broach's songs as Dionne were often muffled or inaudible, but she and her pals Venchise Glenn and Andrea Belser still rip it up in "White Boys."
In the lead role of Berger, Nicky Belardo has the bad boy look and the sexy moves down pat, but his voice often sounded flat and tired on this night. Perhaps that's why he just smiled and mugged but didn't sing in the trio piece "Don't Put It Down," allowing the other two performers, Gilpin and David Turner, to do the vocals.
As Claude, Scott Esposito looks rather fetching underneath his long blonde wig, kind of like a cross between Brad Pitt and Marcia Brady. And thanks to his resonant singing voice, he turns each of his songs into memorable moments, especially the Act 1 closer "Where Do I Go?"
Director (also set and sound designer, and technical director) Patrick Ciamacco does what he can to move the 18-person cast around the tiny BCT stage. Still, many scenes look congested. But when he has some space, such as in the final tableau against the etched names on a Vietnam Memorial, the effect is profound and compelling.
Through September 13 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studios, 1305 West 78th Street, 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.