The current Portland Center Stage production of Hair wears its heart on its sleeve. Its large ensemble cast and all those who built this show, by all indications, believe. In what, it’s a bit unclear—characteristic of the original production. It’s best not to think about it too critically, and appreciate the vibe. This cast and crew are bringing that with energy and abandon.
Not unlike its descendant Rent, Hair is an American phenomenon born of its time. It emerged in 1968, a time of great social upheaval and division with resemblance to our current time. Though at least one production has attempted to locate the musical in a different time period, PCS has wisely, like most productions, staged it in the 1960s, when a generation of young people challenged all the rules about sexuality, music, drugs, theater, family, and country. Hair sought to provoke on all fronts, to challenge why nudity on stage and references to sexual and interracial coupling were shocking but sending young men to die in Vietnam wasn’t.
A challenge of producing this music in the current day is that many audience members remember the time. They were those teenagers. Presumably, they aren’t shocked in the way those original audiences were shocked, and aren’t inclined to walk out of the theater in disgust, as some audience members did during early productions. Judging from the audience reaction, I’m guessing they are enjoying the nostalgia of this depiction of their own youthful challenges to authority.
I’m slightly too young for that, but old enough to notice that the teenagers of the 1960s didn’t create a wholly new world, and that many of them participated in perpetuating the systemic problems that teenagers of the today are justly angry about. What does it mean to say that Hair is even “more urgent today,” as PCS Artistic Director Marissa Wolf has expressed? How is it “an intentional act of hope in turbulent times,” as director Isaac Lamb has said?
The anger and joy and love expressed in the musical are heartfelt. They are also youthful. They express a willingness to take risks, but not all the right ones. That’s all faithful to what was true about the movements of the time. The right risks require commitment to systemic change that would involve giving up more than most of the youth of the ’60s were prepared to give up, as it turns out. From this distance, the problems they were identifying still look real, and also huge. The commitment needed to effect change on that scale is huge, too.
Still, there are things to love about the bone structure of Hair. The movement is communal; it’s a musical without one star. Many cast members have show-stopping numbers even while not having much of a dramatic arc in the show’s thin storyline. And what makes the numbers show-stopping is not only the individual voices (all strong) but the collective voices and movement, also strong. It’s a huge, joyous collective energy lift. And the truth, then as now, is that young people are generally onto to something worth attending to, whether or not they prove themselves capable of living into it when they begin to acquire more agency and have more to give up.
Hair doesn’t attempt to engage those larger systemic questions. It aims to depict that gorgeous collective energy. This production is full of strong bodies and movement and voices that are up to that task. My hope—perhaps shared by many others who love and carry this musical–would be that the rest of us will use that infusion of energy to engage the larger questions.
- Company: Portland Center Stage
- Where: The Armory, U.S. Bank Main Stage, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., Portland
- When: Wednesday-Sunday evenings, Saturday-Sunday and some Thursday matinees, through Nov. 5
- Tickets/Calendar: Here