Nina Schreckengost is just a bit obsessed with the groundbreaking rock musical "Hair," which opens Friday at Rock Island's District Theatre.
The perky 22-year-old Ohio native fell in love with the show the first time she saw its 2009 Broadway revival, while she was in her last semester at New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Partly since she became friends with actors in the joyous "Hair," Ms. Schreckengost ended up seeing it 13 times within two months.
"Before seeing it, I was a completely different person," she said this week, noting she grew up in a conservative household. "Seeing 'Hair' is having your mind blown; it was like, 'Yeah.' That's how it should be."
"It's like a life-affirming lesson. I grew more open-minded, more open-hearted," she said, adding in cynical, gloomy New York City, she became a sunny, fresh, optimistic breeze. And in her fourth show in Rock Island (following Circa 21's "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Lost Highway" and the recent District "Avenue Q"), "We've become a tribe and a family, and we truly care about each other's well-being."
"I have such a huge passion for the show," Ms. Schreckengost (who's done dinner theater across the country) said. "It gives you a reason to keep going. This show is the reason I do this. This is definitely the turning point in my career and my life.This has changed me to be a better actor, a better person in my life."
In "Hair," she plays Sheila, a key member of the diverse 16-person "tribe" -- a group of politically active, long-haired hippies of the "Age of Aquarius" living a bohemian life in New York and fighting against conscription into the Vietnam War. Sheila, Claude (Bryan Tank), Berger (Chris Causer) and their friends struggle to balance their young lives, loves and the sexual revolution with rebellion against the war and their conservative parents and society.
Kiarri Andrews -- a Chicago native who went to AMDA with Ms. Schreckengost and was in "Smokey Joe's" and "Avenue Q" with her -- said she is perfect for the part. "Sheila is just this die-hard optimist," he said. "When she gets her head focused on one thing, she goes. She doesn't have time for doubt, for worry."
He plays Hud, who Mr. Andrews described as "militant but very hippie, open and very free, connected to people in the tribe." The show "requires so much of you. There are moments that are incredibly joyful, then something happens and it's the depths of sadness," he said.
Also based in New York, Mr. Andrewsearned a degree in broadcast journalism from Northern Illinois University, and performed in Broadway's Rising Stars at Town Hall in 2011.
Of the actor's life -- of endless auditions and rejections -- he said:"It's so much heartbreak, so much pain, and so many tears, so many doubts, but for the few minutes you're able to do it...It's enough to pull you through the next three months of nothing."
Mr. Andrews (who's African-American) admires "Hair" for being one of the first Broadway shows to have a multi-ethnic cast. "It's such a big show in that regard and it changed so many things on Broadway," he said. "And the music of 'Hair' is iconic. You know so many songs from 'Hair' you didn't know were from 'Hair.'
While "Rent" (performed at The District earlier this season) was said to bring musicals to the MTV generation, "Hair" (which opened in 1968 on Broadway) established the genre of rock musicals -- and the non-linear concept musical -- that laid the groundwork for shows like "Rent," said director Tristan Tapscott, the District's artistic director.
"It's truly an ensemble piece," he said of "Hair," similar that way to "Rent," which also featured 16 actors, is heavy on rock music and has many plot threads. "It's a strange piece that way -- there are so many stories they're weaving together."
"It's slices of life, and reminds me a lot of 'Rent,'" Mr. Tapscott said. "It's song after song. You don't learn a lot about the characters; you get little glimpses of them." Also, like "Rent," it's aboutyoung people's struggles and relationships, he said, noting: "It's why we all relate to it -- we're a vagabond group of freelance artists."
The local cast of "Hair" -- which includes the hits "Age of Aquarius," "Let the Sunshine In" and "Easy To Be Hard" -- featuresSara King ("Next to Normal") as Jeanie, Nicholas Munson ("Rent") as Woof, Antoinette Holman (Circa's "Hairspray") as Dionne and Kelly Lohrenz ("Rent") as Chrissy, as well as Ezekiel Davis, Andrew Cole, Joseph Maubach, Sara Pethoud, Erin Clark and Bottoms Up Burlesque's Cameron Jaime.
This is the first time a local theater company has done the show; Augustana College performed it in 1987 in Potter Hall.
Mr. Andrews and Ms. Schreckengost loves working with Mr. Causer, who was the volcanic Roger in District Theatre's "Rent."
"He's the type of actor that makes acting easy. Because of that, everyone else's performance is so much stronger," Mr. Andrews said. "He gives everything he has, no matter what."
"He's the best person I've ever acted with on stage. He's incredible."said Mr. Tapscott, who was Mark in "Rent."
Ms. Schreckengost also credited her director for making "Hair" a dream come true.
"Towork with him on this level, it's so inspiring. I just want to be so perfect for him because he's brilliant," she said.
Despite a history of previous productions featuring brief nudity, there will be no nudity in The District version, Mr. Tapscott noted. "You're not going to miss anything by not having it there," he said. "That's the thing everybody asks me. Why is this such a big deal?"
-- What: "Hair"
-- When: Preview tonight at 8 p.m., opens Friday and runs each Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. through April 28.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $10 tonight; $20 all other shows, available at 309-235-1654.
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