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Buzz factor makes 'Hair' a runaway hit for American Stage

Actors Aleshea Harris, front left, and Alex Covington join other cast members in performing one of the songs from Hair.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Actors Aleshea Harris, front left, and Alex Covington join other cast members in performing one of the songs from Hair.

ST. PETERSBURG — Not long after American Stage's production of Hair opened at Demens Landing on the downtown waterfront in April, producing artistic director Todd Olson realized the company had a hit on its hands.

"It just had that buzz factor," he said Monday. "Everything we do out there we try and make as memorable as we can. But there was something about this one that felt like a runaway thing."

Hair, which closed a four-week run with Sunday night's performance, had total attendance of 16,539, making it the most successful American Stage in the Park production since 1997, when a punk rock Macbeth drew 20,123.

Measured by attendance per performance, Hair may be the biggest hit in the 25 years the troupe has been putting on springtime productions under the stars. Though Macbeth had the highest total attendance, it played for six weeks, two weeks longer than Hair.

"Hair played to over 4,000 people a week. That would have been about 25,000 if we had played six weeks," Olson said. There was one rained-out performance.

American Stage often extends the run of a popular play in its theater, but it's more complicated to add shows in the park.

"It's too large a ship to turn," Olson said. "It would have involved permits and liquor licenses and police. The rental packages for lights and sound are just so big. To extend all that another week is tricky.

"But we're certainly kicking ourselves that we don't have six-week runs like we had back in the day. We're going to re-evaluate that for the future."

Gross ticket sales for Hair could surpass $160,000. "That is at least $50,000 more than our projected revenue goal," Olson said. "That's real money for us, and we will do a lot with it."

American Stage was lucky to get the rights to Hair before a Broadway production of the musical opened in March 2009 and became a hit. Now a national tour is set that includes performances next year at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Regional performance rights are often not available when a tour is out for the first time.

There was a good omen at American Stage's opening night gala for Hair. One of the people attending was Barbara Mosser, daughter of the legendary New York theater impresario Joe Papp, original producer of the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical."

"Your production brought my father to life for me. It did my heart good!" wrote Mosser, a Tampa resident, in a note to Olson.

Five years ago, American Stage made what Olson calls a "course correction" to move away from strictly Shakespearean productions in the park.

"We were trying to renew a declining tradition," he said, but the first production after that change, the African-American musical Crowns, was a flop, with attendance of less than 8,000. Now attendance is on the upswing, with last year's Altar Boyz drawing about 12,000, followed by the success of Hair.

Rent is on the agenda for 2011. Olson hopes to bring back Hair director Eric Davis and musical director Vince di Mura for the Jonathan Larson musical.

"We're staying with a hot hand here," Olson said. "But after Rent, what else is there in that vein? Rock of Ages — the '80s hair band musical — could be fun out there."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com.arts.

Buzz factor makes 'Hair' a runaway hit for American Stage 05/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:41pm]

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