By GUY D’ASTOLFO
John Holt is back, but he’s not staying.
The former executive director of the Youngstown Playhouse left the city five years ago under less-than-optimal circumstances, but with his reputation for high-quality musicals intact.
In his first local stage presentation since 2008, Holt is directing a season-ending production of “Hair” at the Oakland. The rock musical opens Friday and runs for three weekends.
In the mid-2000s, Holt helmed a series of complex shows that were sometimes so grand that they looked too big for the Playhouse stage.
His productions of “Sweeney Todd,” “The Secret Garden” and “Titanic” restored the Playhouse’s luster. They also earned him praise for getting every ounce out of his cast, crew and the facility’s ability to pull off dazzling effects.
But though Holt was a visionary who could bring grand plans to fruition, he was also a sitting duck for the recession that sucker-punched the country at the end of the Bush administration.
His reign came to an abrupt end in the fall of 2008, when the economic collapse caused grants and donations to dry up overnight. It was especially hard on the Playhouse, which was burdened with a high-maintenance building that needed tens of thousands of dollars worth of repairs and was already sinking under the weight of its debt.
The South Side theater was forced to make an about-face, shifting its emphasis from extravagant staging to conservative bean-counting.
Holt was washed out in the tide of austerity, the first casualty of the Playhouse’s rapid — and well-documented — comeback.
He moved to Lewisburg, W.Va., where he remained active in theater and movie work.
In an interview this week, he said he has no plans to move back to the area or direct other plays here. He also put the crisis in perspective.
“The Playhouse went through some hard times that 90 percent of all the theaters in the country went through in the fall of 2008,” he said. “A lot of the money that had been coming in dried up overnight.”
The opportunity to return to Youngstown took him by surprise, and he found himself saying yes.
“The offer to direct ‘Hair’ came in August of last year out of nowhere,” he said. “They contacted me, asked if I’d be interested, and they caught me on a day when I was. It doesn’t signify much of anything [regarding future plans] though. [‘Hair’] has been on my bucket list for some time, and I have never worked at the Oakland before. It’s kind of sweet to be able to close the circle, so to speak, but I have no plans to move back or do more directing [in Youngstown].”
To prepare for “Hair,” Holt has been staying in the area for the past several weeks. “I’ve put my life on hold for this, but I’m self-employed, so I can do that,” he said.
Although the Oakland stage is considerably smaller than the Playhouse’s, Holt sees that as a plus.
“The way this show plays to the audience, it almost demands a more intimate setting,” he said. “It helps your audience feel more like they’re part of it as opposed to, say, watching it on a screen. That’s the key to make the audience feel comfortable, like they know these people. The majority of the cast stays on stage almost the whole time, and the way these types of shows work, an audience member can follow any number of people in the cast, see how they progress and what they do.”
Holt said the lighting design by Ellen Licitra will help make the most of the space.
The set is minimal, but it stays true to the rock musical’s historical intent. The band is on stage the whole time and is part of “the tribe” — the name given to the cast. Matt White is music director.
“A lot of what is presented in ‘Hair’ is based on the premise that the way these kids made money in the ’60s is street theater, and that’s how the numbers are premised, like they’re putting on cheap skits to earn money for food and drugs.”
The success of the recent revival of “Hair” on Broadway proved that the show has an enduring appeal, despite being rooted in a precise moment in time. Holt keeps it in that era, and if the production stirs nostalgia for the audience, then so be it.
“It can’t help but have a feeling of nostalgia,” he said. “The way we’re presenting it, you won’t have a choice but to feel that. A range of emotions is forced on the audience, highs to lows, dealing with what was relevant back in the late ’60s — opposition to war, drugs, sex, youth problems, government, authority. ... Some of it is joyful, and some — not so much. But the parallels [to today] are quite amazing and striking. We are not modernizing the show, but are presenting it as a piece in time. What the audience chooses to do is up to them. It’s not being forced down their throat.”
Holt cast the musical five months before rehearsals started to garner top talent.
Joey Pascarella plays Claude, the young hippie and nominal leader of the tribe whose story is at the center of “Hair.” Jason Green plays Claude’s best friend, the “psychedelic teddy bear” George Berger. Lauren Wenick plays student-turned- activist Sheila, and Jessica Schmidt is the pregnant, gas mask-wearing Jeanie. Nikita Jones as Ronny starts the show off with a rendition of “Aquarius,” one of the most well-known numbers from the musical.
“Hair” features more than 30 songs, including favorites “Let the Sunshine In,” “Easy” and the title song.
Rounding out the cast are 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.
Leslie Brown handled set design, and Dorene White is stage manager.
Holt said cast members created their own costumes in order to develop a true understanding of their characters.
“Whether they got clothing from a thrift store or from home, it helped them to understand,” he said, adding: “Today’s stereotype of the ’60s hippie is not really how they looked back then. It was not all flashy and tie-dye. It was more earthy and organic.”