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On set with a Superstar

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Mike Thomas is returning to SummerFest for the first time since his bar-setting production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2004. That production made Thomas a supertstar, and has his rendition of “Hair” a very anticipated piece. By Brad Luttrell & Rich Copley | Staff (For Rich’s story about Thomas’ involvement, click the “more” link below.)

A new ‘Hair’ style

By Rich Copley

Mike Thomas was at the performance last weekend of SummerFest’s Antony and Cleopatra last weekend when festival chairman Joe Artz hopped onstage to give the director of Hair some love.

Talking about the fest’s upcoming shows, Artz reminded the audience how Thomas headed up the most successful production ever to play The Arboretum: the Lexington Shakespeare Festival’s 2004 production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which broke attendance records, reset the festival’s bar artistically and financially and proved that musicals could be donesucceed there.;s banishing the idea musicals couldn’t be performed there and dusting attendance records. Superstar holds the single-night attendance record with 2,915 people turning out for the Saturday night performance and attracting more than 9,000 people over the show’s five-night run.

Since then, the Shakespeare Festival closed and was replaced by SummerFest, which is in its second year.

Even though things have changed since then and the Shakespeare Festival has been replaced by SummerFestBecause it was the same place and setting, so , Artz wanted to remind people that the same team that produced Jesus Christ Superstar — Thomas, choreographer Peggy Stamps and music director Mark Funk — was back in The Arboretum for the first time since that show. They would be producing Hair, July 23 to 27.

“That horrified me,” Thomas says of hearing Artz pumping up Hair, which plays July 23 to 27. “Maybe it’s just a pressure that I feel. But it is coming off of Superstar, and to have people look and say, ‘It’s that same team and they gave us the biggest success,’ and then Joe Artz was up there saying, ‘There’s Mike and there’s Peggy, and I was going, ‘No, no, no,’ because we’re not sure, and we’re a week and a half away.’

“We’re just not sure how this Hair is growing. We’ve cut it, we’ve shaped it, we’ve tried to make it stylish. But we’re still not sure how it’s going a week and a half out. It is a peculiar vehicle unto itself.”

Indeed. The iconic 1968 rock musical Hair centers on Claude, an Oklahoman in the late ’60s who winds up in New York being indoctrinated into a hippie community. His journey ties the show together, although it diverts to comment heavily on issues prominent in the era, such asincluding love, sexuality, drug use, the Vietnam War and race relations.

A new generation

Famous for producing pop hits such asthe hit pop songs Aquarius, Easy to Be Hard, Let the Sun Shine and Good Morning Starshine, the show also is well known for explicit language and an optional group nude scene. The cast of SummerFest’s production will not be doffing their clothes, but all of the other adult content will be retained, including portrayal of drug use and sexually suggestive language and choreography. (See column, this page.)

Because the play is about young people, most of the actors Thomas cast were not familiar with the show, although several times he heard comments like, “My parents used to listen to this song.”

Hair initially proved problematicdifficult to cast. The people who were most interested in it initially were older performers for whom the show was part of their youth.

“You can’t cast someone in their 40s as a kid who’s just been kicked out of high school and is burning his draft card,” Thomas says.

Ever since it premiered and began to define the notion of rock musicals, Hair has belonged to another generation. But Thomas sees Hair catching a cultural zeitgeist now the same way that his production of Superstar came at a time when Jesus was a big topic, thanks to the film The Passion of the Christ and other pop-culture manifestations.

When Thomas said that when he talked to the cast about the show, he asked, “‘What angers you, what moves you, what impassions you?’” he said. And once again, it’s war, it’s the ecology, it’s the economy, it’s class, it’s gender. All of those things that were put out front in 1968, we can take the 2008 energy and awareness and activate it on stage, again.”

The company has caught the cross-generational enthusiasm for the show, and it’s manifested in 21st-century marketing, including a Facebook page where nearly 400 people, at press time, have already said they’re going to the show and more than 1,000 are invited.

But Hair’s age, structure and language can make it a perplexing show to direct, even for a 51-year-old who initially discovered the show when he was 13.

“Some of the text I read and I go, ‘What?! What is this?” Thomas says. “Stuff comes from nowhere, and it’s their own hippie kind of jargon lingo and it comes forth in songs, you know.

“‘Glibby glop gloopy; Nibby nobby noopy,’” headds says, quoting Good Morning Starshine’s bridge.

“It has just kind of stumped me at times. It has its own rhythms, and the transitions between songs and scenes, if there are scenes, are sketchy at best.”

That’s one of the advantages of the team he has. Thomas says he has to remind himself that even though it looks very different from, say, Hello Dolly, Hair is still a musical. On the other side, choreographer Stamps is a sort of earth ying to his and Funk’s yang, helping to bring a broad vision to this show, which also worked for Superstar, which was by no means a breeze to direct.IS THIS NECESSARY? IT DOESN’T FIT. Last Tuesday night, eight days before opening, Thomas was onstage with his cast at the University of Kentucky’s Guignol Theatre trying to figure out a scene near the beginning of the second act, basically a drug-induced hallucination by the lead character of Claude. It includes dead presidents, soldiers parachuting into Vietnam, and Thomas has added the element of Southern belle parasols to serve as numerous objects in the scene.

“This just isn’t working,” Thomas grumbled to Funk, at one point scanning the theater for Stamps.

A delayed return

The trio were actually supposed to make their triumphant return to The Arboretum in 2005 with a production of Fiddler on the Roof. But Funk and Thomas were tapped to ­direct the Capitol Arts Alliance in Bowling Green and had to start before the show went into rehearsals.

The pair have since moved to Maysville, where Thomas is now the executive director of the Washington Opera House.

With Thomas and Funk back in the region, SummerFest directors asked them to return.

“There’s something about this group of people, Trish Clark and Joe Ferrell, any time they come calling, we want to work with them,” Thomas says of the SummerFest directors.

And Hair was a show that Thomas wanted to direct before he thought he was too old. But it does come with the baggage of those expectations, fueled by a magical summer four years ago.

They’re expectations he wants to tamp down, saying he’ll be happy with a solid show and good turnout.

But actually directing Hair is another story.

It should be noted that Superstar, like Hair rooted in 1960s counterculture, offered its own set of problems Thomas had obstacles to overcome, including finding Jesus.Mike Fyman, who played the role and went on to perform it in Louisville the next summer, walked into auditions at the eleventh hour.

Of course many more people will need to come to repeat the success of ’04, when more than 9,000 saw Superstar over a five-night run. That is why Thomas wants to tamp down all that record-breaker talk. He will be happy with a strong production and good crowds.

NICE. If the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, who knows what could happen?

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