Eugene Weekly : Theater : 6.26.08

40 Years of Love
Hair returns to the scene
by Sharleen Nelson

Forty years after the musical opened on Broadway in 1968, Actors Cabaret of Eugene presents Hair, “the American tribal love-rock musical.” 

I was 10 the year it opened, and all I knew was that I loved singing along to the catchy lyrics (gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen, knotted, polka-dotted / twisted, beaded, braided, powdered, flowered and confettied). I was introduced to the “groovy revolution” by way of my local AM radio station with the bubblegum pop version of “Hair,” sung by the wholesome family group The Cowsills. It was a far cry from Country Joe McDonald’s sardonic “Fixin’ to Die Rag” or Jimi Hendrix’s bitter evisceration of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It would be years before I realized that growing your hair out all long and funky was merely a footnote to the show’s more controversial themes about racism, environmental destruction, poverty, sexism and sexual repression, the war in Vietnam and corruption in politics. 

The cast of Hair. Photo: Jim Roberts

The plot in Hair is minimal — the “tribe,” a diverse group of politically active “Hippies of the Age of Aquarius” living a bohemian lifestyle in New York, challenges the social norms of the time. But the message is the music, and even though the clothes, the hair and the words may now seem overly idealistic — even quaint — the themes remain as powerful and relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

Director Michael P. Watkins has assembled a first-rate cast of young and energetic performers. Casting Chris McVein in the lead role as the tribe’s leader Claude, who gets drafted and ultimately ends up dying in Vietnam, was a judicious choice. McVein’s transformative vocal solos are phenomenal — from happy hippie in “I Got Life” to near Christ-like figure in army fatigues in the haunting “The Flesh Failures.” Tyler Holden is also ideally cast as the irreverent free spirit Berger. As Claude’s comedic foil, Holden captures the essence of the archetypical hippie, not only because he actually looks the part, but because he effortlessly draws the audience into the tribe’s inner circle, and with a wink invites them to the party. Colin Gray and Jermaine Golden contribute their talents, respectively as Woof, in love with Mick Jagger, but not gay; and Hud, militant black male and unofficial “president of the United States of love.”

Although he’s not one of the lead characters, Mark Van Beever deserves mention for his hilarious, over-the-top cameo performance as noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, who stumbles upon this new tribal “species.” Amid the heavy themes, Van Beever’s “operatic” solo is a high note of the show; in my opinion, no musical should be without at least one performer in drag.

The three female leads put in fabulous performances as well. Laura Holden plays Jeannie, in love with Claude, but “knocked up by some crazy speed freak.” Her vocal performance of “Good Morning Starshine” is particularly terrific. As passionate protester and Berger’s love interest, Cate Wolfenbarger is splendid as the sensitive Sheila. Listening to her sing such songs as“I Believe in Love” and “Easy to Be Hard” with such conviction makes you want to get up right now and join the revolution; and Amanda Fackrell puts in a solid performance as Crissy. From her innocent rendition of “Frank Mills” to belting it out loud in “Abie Baby,” the girl can sing! As a team, the trio provides great harmonization in Supremes-like fashion for the delivery of the bluesy “Black Boys/White Boys.” 

When the energetic and talented cast performed “Aquarius,” Hair” and “Let The Sun Shine In” for the enthusiastic opening night crowd — some dressed in tie-dye and other groovy ‘60s garb — the place rocked. Kudos to the set and lighting designers, too. Although the set is minimal, a peace sign flag here, some Batik blankets there, it was effective, and the use of lighting to reflect the moods of the tribe was exceptional. Red, blue, green, white, yellow — spinning to illustrate when the tribe is tripping on LSD, softer light when a tribesmember was waxing philosophical. 

It would be easy but unfair to speak of ACE’s production of Hair as a “Eugene thing.” The people who live here agree that hippies aren’t solely what define us as a city. But we do like our tie-dye and drum circles, so join the “be-in.” It’s pretty groovy.    

Hair continues at ACE June 27-28, July 2, 3, 5 & 11-12. The show moves to the Hult July 18-20. Call 683-4368 for tix.