Age of Aquarius

John Holt didn’t need much persuasion to return to Youngstown to direct “Hair” at the Oakland Center for the Arts.”

“‘Hair’ has been on my directing bucket list for a long, long time,” Holt said. “I’d given into the idea that, ‘Yeah, I’ll never do it.’

“It defined a genre that included the likes of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ where the approach and the audience experience is completely different from your standard fare. Even though it was written and workshopped and came out in the late ’60s, for the most part everything is still relevant at its core.”

Holt, who served as artistic director at the Youngstown Playhouse from 2005 to 2008, will stage the musical for a three-weekend run beginning Friday.

The loosely structured narrative that ties together the songs of Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado touches on issues of an unpopular war, gay rights, racial divisions and drugs, topics that are still being debated 45 years after the musical’s Broadway debut.

“Once people understand the story is not just about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there are some relevant points being made,” Holt said. “They give you a nice storyline about the main character and the decision process he goes through.”

It’s also the kind of musical that works well within the space limitations of the Oakland.

“I never directed there before, but I knew it was somewhat limited in scope and size, but there wasn’t a whole lot that I needed to tailor and change to make it work in that space,” Holt said. It’s naturally a very intimate musical. It almost wants to be that way.”

Holt nearly didn’t get to cross “Hair” off of his bucket list. While he agreed to direct it last August, on Christmas Eve, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. But two months later, Holt was at the Oakland for auditions, although he said the two-day process really wore him out. However, doing auditions so early allowed him to storyboard the show with a cast in place while he finished recuperating and before rehearsals started in May.

“I’m just a little slower,” Holt said. “My overall approach is the same. I don’t direct from the seats. I get on stage with the actors and work with them, either one on one or in ensemble. I’m just a little slower getting up there now.”

The cast includes Joey Pascarella as Claude, the young hippie and nominal leader of the tribe of young people; Jason Green as his best friend, Berger; Lauren Wenick as NYU-student-turned-political-activist Sheila; and Jessica Schmidt as the pregnant, gas-mask-wearing Jeanie. Nikita Jones plays Ronny and sings the opening song “Aquarius,” one of the most well-known numbers from “Hair.”

The show’s score produced several pop hits, including “Let the Sunshine In,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Easy to Be Hard” and the title song.

The rest of the cast includes Rosie Jo Neddy, Susan Prosser, Jimmy Rosan, Haggy Hageman, Dylan White, Medford Mashburn, Kate Starling, Amy Banks, Dan McClurkin, Victoria Lubonovich, Larissa Woloszyn, Kristopher Ray North, Jacinda Madison, Anthony Madison, and Adrienne Viano.

Holt said the cast has bonded during the rehearsals.

“Everyone in the show, including the band (led by musical director Matt White), is in what’s called the tribe,” he said. “They’ve kind of run with that idea and given themselves a tribal name that is for their group which is unique and for them only. It’s not really a part of anything else.

“We did a lot of things to incorporate everybody, to not give the impression the leads were on a higher plane, to even the playing field because everyone plays a pivotal role in the story.”

Holt believes many of the themes of “Hair” resonate today, but he intentionally kept the show true to its original time period.

“I 100 percent set this back in 1968,” he said. “Absolutely nothing in this show is modern … Everyone did their own piece of research, from the scenic design to the music, even the protest posters. We made sure we didn’t enter a decade we didn’t belong in.”

That attitude also carried over to the costumes, which avoid the day-glo colors some use to depict hippie style.

“Actually, the clothing was not as bright,” Holt said. “The majority of kids who were proclaimed as hippies didn’t have a whole lot of money, so their clothing was not fancy. We see the stereotypical hippie today as very, very brightly colored, but we went with more organic and earth-tone colors. And the cast played a key role in this. Because of the work they had to do in the show, I wanted to be sure they were comfortable in the clothing.”

“Hair” always has been considered the ultimate youth musical. But since those who were the age of the characters when it debuted now are collecting Social Security, Holt believes the show should have broad appeal.

“I think the demo has morphed over the years. The majority of people who are going to know the music are those who were actively listening to the radio in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and a good portion of them are still out there. In the same vein, a lot of these songs have been covered over the years, so they’re rather popular.”