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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Eric McKeever stars in the Skylight Music Theatre's production of "El Cimarron."
Eric McKeever stars in the Skylight Music Theatre's production of "El Cimarron." (Photo: Mark Frohna)

Skylight's "El Cimarron" should be on your must-see list

"El Cimarron" is one of those "oughta" events.

Like a Packer playoff game, going to the dentist or giving a homeless person a buck or two on a day of freezing temperatures.

Things you "oughta" do. People tell you about them all the time. And Viswa Subbaraman, the artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre, talked about how people ought to see "El Cimarron." In one video piece, he said the play would "change you forever."

I don’t know about changing me forever, but it’s probably as close as the next best choice for changing me forever.

"El Cimarron" is the stunning, unique and excruciatingly powerful story of Esteban Montejo, who was born a slave in Cuba, escaped to the woods, fought in the Cuban War of Independence from Spain and lived to be 113 years old before dying in 1973.

The tortured story of how Montejo’s life became the sparkling star for a book, a libretto and some of the most incredible music you’ve ever heard, is far too complicated for this review. So, let us just concentrate on the production, which opened Friday night and runs through January 12 at the Skylight.

A quartet of talented music professionals under the guidance of Subbaraman himself, who also takes a turn as an auxiliary percussionist, tackles a score by Hanz Werner Henze that will never be mistaken for "My Fair Lady" or "The Music Man." Michael Lorenz (percussion) Scott Metilcka playing a variety of flutes and piccolo and Nathan Wysock on guitar carry this story along on wings of some kind of musical angel.

Nobody sings along to this music, and nobody really dances to it, although a rhumba rhythm or two rears its head now and then.

This is music designed to do one thing: tell us a story as one of two characters on the stage.

The other character is Montejo himself, played by baritone Eric McKeever who has both a vocal and visual command of a stage that is stunning in both its complexity and its simplicity.

These two characters, the actor and the music, equally share in the telling of a story that is uncomfortable at times, thrilling at others and, in the end, an emotional ride full of joy, sorrow and passion.

The contributors to this production all carry their share of an incredibly elastic load, but special mention must be paid to Eugenia Arsenis, the stage director who breathes life into this story as a shot of helium fills a balloon.

She exudes confidence and passion as she explains her attraction and her clarity of vision for "El Cimarron." She has a special bond with this play. I can imagine dozens of directors being offered an opportunity to direct this piece, only to turn away and look for "Our Town."

Directing this play takes courage, grace and a deep desire to set free the flights of fancy that best tell this story. It is certain that this piece requires exquisite discipline, but that discipline without freedom would fall flat. This is about the story of a slave, but it is also about being free from convention when you tell a story.

The astounding thing about her gentle guidance of this production is how remarkably calm the evening is. She has taken the most uncomfortable and turned it into a warm blanket to snuggle in before a raging fire. The marriage of this music and this story needs to have a steady, soft and fearless hand at the tiller, and she brings all of that.

Subbaraman, who can still be called the new artistic director, has a background in classical music. He has shown with his program for this year, featuring everything from "Les Miserables" to "Hair," that he is well attuned to the intrinsic value of the big show.

With "El Cimarron" he has served notice that he is not going to march through this musical world with fear on his shoulder. This is a brave choice. It is not a play for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a gentle evening out, don’t bother with this.

But if you are brave enough to be challenged both intellectually and emotionally, if you are brave enough to face something new and unexpected, and if you are brave enough to wonder how in the world man could do some of these things to his brothers, then see this play.

It is, most clearly, something you all "oughta" do.

Information is available at http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/

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