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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Age of Aquarius

Happy, peace-loving Russian hippies who can sing, dance and act were all that Stas Namin wanted. Namin, a Soviet-era rock star, is staging the Russian premiere of "Hair," which opens Monday at the Estrada Theater. However, just a few weeks ago, he still wasn't sure if he had found the right actors.

Namin and the musical's American actors and production staff, who are in Moscow to collaborate, also didn't know if the songs would be performed in English or Russian - there were no translations. Another question was whether Russians or Americans would comprise the main cast.

The original plan - to use a Russian text and English-language lyrics, with Americans in the main roles - was gradually scrapped. Now, hits like "Let the Sunshine In" and "Aquarius" have been hastily translated into Russian and the cast has been shuffled to consist mostly of Russians - young men and women, some of them street performers who have never performed on stage.

Using actors who feel, and look, the part has always been central to "Hair," the late-'60s Broadway musical once banned from U.S. stages for its nudity and desecration of the national flag. So, in keeping with the spirit of the play, Namin wanted to cast actors who "have a rock 'n' roll mentality."

In the first days of rehearsal in September, it was apparent to director Bo Crowell, who directed "Hair" at Los Angeles' Candlefish Theater for two years, that the Russian actors did not grasp the play's anti-establishment themes. Bell bottoms, flowers and marijuana they'd heard of. Issues of racism, war, the draft and sexual morality, at least in their American incarnations, were something else entirely - the essence of a social movement that even some of its young U.S. participants did not fully understand.

"When I got here, nobody knew what a hippie was all about," said Crowell, a long-haired, self-proclaimed hippie who has been in Moscow, working a great deal and sleeping very little, since mid-September. "It took a long time to instill [on stage] the general feeling of peace, love and freedom... But they've changed so much since I first met them."

That "feeling" seems to have finally taken hold among the group of Russian performers, including the dread-locked Ksenya Alexeyeva, who plays Jenny. Namin discovered her this summer at a party, where she sang two notes "for fun," he said. Seeing that she had "the hippie look," he invited her to an audition.

By contast, American Brian Diggs, the only non-Russian in a main role, attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York and has been a professional actor, singer and dancer for at least 10 years and performed in "Hair" for three years at Candlefish.

Sudden changes in the translations of the songs have been a "little overwhelming," said Diggs, who doesn't speak Russian and arrived three weeks ago prepared to sing in English.

Crowell admits that much fine-tuning remains before opening night - of everything from the play's choreography to perfecting the Russian Scarlett O'Hara character.

But those involved with the Russian production and its final-hour translations seem to accept these difficulties with the hope that the play's social meaning will not be lost on the audience.

"It was painfully obvious when we got here that nobody would understand what the hell we were talking about," Crowell said of initial plans to sing in English.

Whether or not audiences would understand, however, was crucial - especially in light of Russia's war with Chechnya. During one rehearsal, Crowell read aloud a recent news clipping about the draft, in order to inspire the Russian actors.

Michael Butler, "Hair's" 73-year-old original producer, has also come to Moscow to help get the show off the ground. Butler said he always hopes that "Hair," performed in more languages and countries than any other musical, will inspire love, peace and freedom - or what he calls "the hippie philosophy."

For at least 20 years, Butler has hoped to produce the play in Russia. On hearing that Namin was interested, he finally gave the project a kick-start.

"Stas has a reputation for being the number-one hippie in Russia. He also has a heavy reputation in the music world," Butler said of the well-known producer who was once a member of the underground Soviet rock band Flowers.

Namin was invited to the Los Angeles production in May, met with Butler and Crowell and immediately decided to bring the play to Russia - to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Urals. Like his U.S. counterparts, he affirms the play's universality.

"It doesn't matter when and where a war happens," Namin said. "It can be Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya. What's the difference? Kids are dying..."

Butler, who worked with both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, became involved in the play because of politics - and a decades-old change of heart that involved smoking marijuana with his young gardener, who would shortly be shipped off to Vietnam.

Around that time, Butler saw the very first showing of "Hair" in New York. He immediately dropped his bid for the United States Senate to co-produce the musical, which he eventually took to Broadway." The play has had a tremendous effect on many, many people in many countries," Butler said.

Indeed, Anastasia Davydov, a teenage cast member who has her own rock band but had never before acted on stage, admits to being changed by her experience in the musical. Davydov, who has an acquaintance who recently returned from Chechnya with a gunshot wound to his head, is skeptical, however, that audiences will be moved to the degree that she was.

"It's a matter of mental health that we have here in Russia, so I doubt this particular play will change the general attitude toward war," she said of the show's effect on the audience. "It's more about having the freedom to say 'I love you' or 'Hey man, don't go to war. They'll kill you.'"

"Hair" plays Nov. 16, 17, 29 and 30 and Dec. 1 and 2 at the Estrada Theater, 20/2 Bersenyovskaya Naberezhnaya. Metro Borovitskaya or Polyanka. Tickets cost from 50 to 500 rubles. To order tickets, call 246-2680 or 236-2716.