Hippie-culture musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical premiered on Broadway in 1968, to widespread enthusiasm from critics and audiences—which was swiftly followed by decency and legal challenges from the larger culture of the era. That divisiveness is what we remember when we think about Hair. Audiences will likely place it as the musical with naked people in it before they recall its iconic numbers, like “Aquarius" and “Let the Sunshine In,” trailblazing racial inclusiveness, and unquestionably relevant anti-war message.
Now, to be sure, the nudity and flag desecration are certainly in there (2023 audiences are less likely to be scandalized), but it is composer Galt MacDermot’s songs, interpreted by each production’s ensemble cast of singers, that draw the listener into the work’s emotional heart.
Playing though November 5, Portland Center Stage’s rendition soars thanks to an übertalented and charming cast who are matched by a stellar band and excellent set design. There’s not a weak link in the bunch.
Playwrights Gerome Ragni and James Rado fully intended for Hair to be controversial. The play debuted during the height of anti-Vietnam War sentiment, when young men across the country were burning the draft cards they were legally required to carry. Clinical psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary (name-checked several times in the show) had just coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out,” and the characters in Hair heed those words by dropping acid and attending “Be-Ins” in New York’s Central Park.
Portland Center Stage’s production nails the musical’s tricky second act hallucination sequence. As it unfolds, accompanied by a constant flow of music, some of the lyrics come off as ridiculous, but that doesn’t detract from the work’s captivating melodies.
Hair is an ensemble work, but if the show has a lead role, it’s Claude Hooper Bukowski (Solomon Parker III)—an ideologically conflicted kid who deviates from his hippie friends to turn himself in at the draft office. Parker III embodies Claude beautifully, thanks to their killer vocal chops and disarming stage presence.
Berger (Skyler Verity), Dionne (Olivia Lucy Phillip), and Sheila (Madeleine Tran) also stood out within the production. Verity perfectly captures the necessary swagger and slightly obstinate attitude of the tribe’s de facto leader while still maintaining his charm. Tran, a powerful soprano, effortlessly soars on “Easy to Be Hard”—the musical’s most biting criticism of counterculture-types— and “Good Morning Starshine.” While all the romance in the show is polyamorous, Sheila is the closest thing to a romantic lead, and Tran brings a unique energy to the role. When it comes to the vocal talent of Olivia Lucy Phillip—who, as Dionne, sings the solos in “Aquarius” and “Walking in Space”—the only appropriate reaction is awe.
Though I love all of Hair’s tracks, “Walking in Space,” remains my favorite. A few years ago, I went through a period of listening to this song on repeat for weeks, struck by a line near the end: “How dare they try to end this beauty?” In Hair, this line refers to the fallout from the US invasion of Vietnam, but it’s a universally applicable sentiment.
Whether or not Hair is totally sincere in its message—its depiction of the hippie movement sometimes verges on satirical—this particular line remains heartbreakingly relevant. Peace on earth has certainly not been achieved since Hair first hit Broadway. But Hair reminds us that the notion of “this beauty” still exists in spades, and there are plenty of people who also want to protect it.
You’ll have a lot of fun at Hair, but the work wasn’t made for escapism. It will leave you moved and offer a more hopeful view of the world, in all its fucked-up, beautiful glory.
Hair plays on the US Bank Main Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th, through November 5, Wed-Sun 7:30 pm, Sat & Sun 2 pm, select Thursdays, $25-98, tickets here, recommended for ages 14 and up.