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Skylight's 'Jukebox' offers history lesson on significant past social issues

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

March 27, 2014

 

WAUKESHA - Viswa Subbaraman, the Skylight Music Theatre’s new artistic director, continues his first season with brave choices and unusual offerings. 

The present one is an avant-garde selection, which is intellectual, historical and challenging. To fully understand and appreciate “Hydrogen Jukebox,” a lot of cultural knowledge is required of the audience. I suspect that the fusion of Philip Glass’s music and Allen Ginsberg’s “beat” poetry will not appeal to a broad spectrum of theater-goers. Nonetheless, it reflects some of the social issues of the 20th century, with emphasis on the 1950s to the ‘80s. The past always influences the present, so taking a look backward can be useful. The music, though somewhat repetitive and atonal, is quite beautiful in its own way.

Six phenomenal vocalists perform the piece, one representing Ginsberg himself - Dan Kempson - and the others, everyman. Erica Schuller, who graced our stage in “Fidelio” earlier this season, provides a haunting descant at times. The voices alone are worth our attendance. The solos are stunning musically, and when all the singers blend together, it is thrilling. Megan Williams, Kristen DiNinno, Ben Robinson and Michael Scarcelle fill out the sextet.

Saxophone, flute, clarinet, percussion and keyboard combine for the musical mix. Subbaraman deftly directs five musicians - John Hibler, Ron Foster, Michael Lorenz, Andrew Cierny and Mark Carlstein - who seemingly meet the challenging score with ease.

The stage is quite stark, a few props are moved on and off, the choreography is often mechanized, and the use of projected poems on the back wall is extensive (and very helpful, I might add, in case we can’t hear all the sung words.)

Ginsberg, along with Ferlingetti, Keroac and Burroughs, to name a few, were known as the leaders of the beat movement. They decried censorship, war, the military-industrial complex, regimentation and loss of individuality, and the illegality of certain drugs. They were very influential in tackling controversial issues such as the war in Vietnam, the rights of women and gays and government intervention into the rights of the individual. Though there are a few pieces that are a bit softer in tone, such as the one about Aunt Rose, Ginsberg’s father, and some tender human relationships between friends and lovers, most of his poetry is marked by anger and outrage. But maybe change is never achieved without passionate efforts on the part of those who are not afraid to take a risk.

“Hydrogen Jukebox” certainly gives us a chance to review our history and reflect upon the issues raised here. Have we made progress?  After experiencing “An Iliad,” “Whipping Boy” and this production in close succession, I seriously wonder. Violence, intolerance and greed still seem to dominate the landscape. Will we catch on before we destroy ourselves? Something to ponder if we’re willing to take a look. It will definitely spur discussion.

“Hydrogen Jukebox” runs through Sunday at the Cabot Theatre inside the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7800 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org for show times and tickets.