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.
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.