The Thrust: Sex Through the Ages on Local Stages

A transformational period of 55 years separates them, but the themes of the rock musical Hair (1967 off-Broadway, 1968 Broadway premiere) and Lowbrow Opera Collective’s #adulting2: here we go again (2022) seem oddly sympatico.

As the Supreme Court disarms 50 years of right-to-privacy protections covering personal choice and reproductive freedom, it’s a particularly good time to look at the then and now. Hair at Renton Civic Theatre and #adulting2 at Seattle’s 18th & Union both run through tomorrow. 

 

Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness! 

Very little of the classic Broadway hit Hair (by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who died at age 90 this week; music by Galt MacDermot) is shocking or revolutionary today, but it certainly was then. The show poked at just about every one of the era’s top controversies: free-wielding sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy (not to mention nudity on stage), interracial relationships of all types, and, of course, resistance to the Vietnam War.

The cast of ‘Hair’ at Renton Civic Theatre. Photo by Colin Madison.

With its breadth, musical vibrancy, and contemporaneous portrayals, Hair captured a mood and some defining clashes of an era.

The production on now at Renton Civic Theatre is an impressive staging, particularly with 18 actor-singers crammed on stage (and often cascading down the aisles) to usher in the Age of Aquarius.

Hair‘s drama centers mostly on male decision-makers, especially Claude (Logan Rains), who’s agonizing over whether or not to flee the draft. As free-love ringleaders Woof and Berger, Samuel Barnes Jaffe and Rolando Cardona-Roman put on impressive performances; and from the ensemble (called the Tribe), Justin “Jay” Smith’s vocals made for some sweet harmonies.

But it’s the women who run the show in this staging, if not in plot at least in performance. Jacqueline Tardanico (Crissy), Ariona Thompson (Dionne), Allyson Jacobs-Lake (Jeanie), and Ania Briggs (ensemble) lead the charge with commanding performances; Belle Amour Pugh (Ronny) has been a standout in past performances at Macha Theatre Works and Village Theatre, and anchors much of the movement here; and Kelsey Jones (Sheila), Kristie “Kiki” Werner (ensemble), and Stefanie MeFang Van Rafelgher (ensemble) provide a strong frame throughout.

I’ve liked director/choreographer Harry Turpin’s work before, particularly in Reboot Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors back in 2018, and that vision carries through for a nice staging here, too. Music director Paul Linnes leads a solid band; and costumes designed by Noel Pederson give a burst of color and send us back in a time machine. It’s a fun production of an audacious show, a bold throwback not often put up on Seattle-area stages.

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The Seattle-based Lowbrow Opera Collective’s brand-new #adulting2: here we go again, meanwhile, is solidly in the present, updating Hair‘s character Woof and some minor allusions to same-sex attraction, instead with sending woofs on Scruff and a catalog of other gay dating and hookup apps.

Sexual liberation is a key theme in #adulting2, which continues predecessor #adulting‘s adventures of roommates Ruth, Tony, Drew, and Bucket. The sexual advances are more explicit here than in Hair (although it foregoes the nudity), and attraction regardless of gender is a centerpiece, rather than a faint abstraction. Gender, too, is at the forefront, with at least two non-binary characters; Hair‘s brief introduction of a lone trans character was clearly for shock value, and it looks like borderline mockery through today’s eyes.

Lowbrow uses a small cast and intimate staging for its original work, which here feels more like a musical/opera hybrid as it dispenses with the traditional melancholy of opera in favor of a more sing-song approach than its past works.

Compared with its predecessor, #adulting2 is missing some things. One notable absence is Krissy Terwilliger (now at NYU), a leader in vocals and stage personality in the original #adulting, who played the character of Bucket there. Lowbrow co-founder Christine Oshiki shines through as the biggest voice here, but it’s a much stronger show when both of them are in it.

As for Bucket, the character is retained in name, played now by Olivia Kerr and portrayed as non-binary. Bucket’s main storyline, when not hopping on a roommate’s date, is fighting with the DMV to get their name changed on a license. The gags feel a bit lifted from the Broad City episode (“2016”) — funny, but recycled. But the character is a disorienting portrayal. Bucket’s not transitioning, they’re literally an entirely different person. It’d have been more effective to just write in a new character rather than re-creating the original.  

The cast of Lowbrow Opera Collective’s ‘#adulting2’. Photos by Steven Dammer.

Much of the narrative feels unsatisfying for other reasons. The initial setup — a realization that all of the roommates’ parents are coming over on the same day — sounds promising and full of drama, but sorts itself out too easily. An extended number purports to be an ode to BDSM (and spelling it out for people), but it’s a bunch of pretty-vanilla sex toys being paraded around out of a communal box (gross). Nic Varela, who brought inanimate objects into magical being in #adulting, has his talents consigned here to the likes of a bizarrely horny Brita pitcher.

The problem, of course, is largely the success of the first — a high bar there means high expectations for the sequel. #adulting was an original opera dissecting the Millennial experience with incisive wit. Despite maintaining the same core team (here, music by John Ervin Brooks, libretto by Natalie Stewart Elder, additional music and libretto by Stefan Melnyk and Austin Nucklos, directed by Katie Kelley), the sequel goes a different direction — playing to the laughs but eschewing most of the keen observational humor that made the first one such a treasure. And where the core characters of #adulting felt like a group who’s trying their best, #adulting2 seems like a cohort who’s given over to not doing much at all. No judgment on that from here, but it also doesn’t make for as interesting of a show.

The sequel does end on a high note, with a big nod to the first: a finale of “Can You Fucking Not?”, the catchy, efficient, sneakily riotous song from the original #adulting. There are no real lyrics; the title is basically the song. But it’s performed with such conviction that its simple, straightforward lyrics convey exactly what they need to. It’s not clear why it’s funny, but it’s very funny. 

Lowbrow’s premise is a unique one, and its latest creation is of that ilk: a humorous original musical with lots of gay notes and operatic tendencies. It just can’t match the first. 

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Especially when viewed in tandem, Hair and #adulting2 are both time capsules of growing notions of sexual freedom and gender liberation. They’re freedoms worth celebrating. When and where we can.

 

Hair runs through 6/25 at Renton Civic Theatre in Renton. Tickets are $31, hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gendered, multi-stall, and upstairs; one accessible restroom is on the main level; theatre is wheelchair accessible.

#adulting2 runs through 6/25 at 18th & Union in the Central District. Tickets are $10-$50 (sliding scale for all), hereAccessibility notes: restroom is gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre can be made wheelchair accessible with a ramp, but the restroom is not — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.


For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.