The paintbrushes came out Friday night when Skylight Music Theatre opened "Hydrogen Jukebox."
This production, running through March 30, is not so much a play or a musical as it is a portrait of poet Allen Ginsberg, whose words would change America forever.
It is difficult to understate the passion, power and provenance of his works. It was Ginsberg, and his soul mates like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who created the first counterculture in the United States. Called the beat generation, they wrote of individualism and freedom, giving birth to what became the hippie and anti-war movements. Ginsberg especially became a soaring voice of the anti-war movement as the spiritual revolution took root in the soil of this country.
"Hydrogen Jukebox" was created by avant-garde composer Philip Glass and Ginsberg after a chance meeting in 1988. The idea was to create a musical piece that carried Ginsberg’s portrait of America on its mighty shoulders.
Glass is revered by many as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, and he has a reputation that rivals that of Ginsberg.
It is against that background that the curtain went up at Skylight.
From the opening moments, it was clear that this was not a Rogers & Hammerstein musical.
Glass is known as a minimalist composer. He has moved away from that label and calls himself more of a repetitive composer. His music is, to say the least, unusual. I’m not enough of an expert to describe exactly what it is and what it means, but it is not … tuneful.
Six beautiful singers on stage – all with wonderful voices and remarkable stage presence – work their way through a series of songs, all with music from Glass and words from Ginsberg.
There is a stark quality to this production. Costumes are stark. The stage is stark. The music is very stark. The lighting provides some depth, but it is almost lost amid the collision between lyrics and music.
I’ll elaborate on that collision in a moment. But I want to make it clear that I am not opposed to new or unusual music.
Earlier this year, Skylight staged a powerful and moving production of "El Cimarron" with unusual music by Hanz Werner Henze. It was spectacular and incredibly engaging.
The problem with the production of "Jukebox" is that I miss the passion and power of Ginsberg. The music ought to wrap these words in a cocoon of respect. But I never heard the angry, plaintive, brilliant or hopeful Ginsberg in the music. His words, so sparkling on paper or to the ear, were reduced to mere SparkNotes for a piece of music.
At the end of the first act, Ginsberg sits alone in a chair with just a spotlight on him. He recites "Wichita Vortex Sutra" a spectacular anti-war poem written in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War.
"O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me
On the bridge over the Republican River
Almost in tears to know
How to speak the right language –
On the frosty broad road
Uphill between highway embankments
I search for the language
That is also yours –
Almost all our language has been taxed by war."
It is one of the few moments in this play that reaches out and grabs you with the biting strength of his words. During that recitation, there seemed to be no music. Maybe my ears were playing tricks on me, but there was nothing interfering with raw Ginsberg.
I wish I could say the same thing for the rest of the performance.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Aug. 27, 2015
With Donald Trump monopolizing the airwaves with his amazing campaign, it's important to recognize that our very own governor is also in this race. It is also important to note that there are significant differences between these two candidates.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The 2015-16 theater season in Milwaukee is just underway and looking ahead there is promise of outstanding productions that will stimulate audiences to laugh, think and weep.It's an appropriate time to look back at the 2014-15 season that provided so much interesting theater. Milwaukee is fortunate to have so many theater companies, both old favorites and new and bold groups. We have a wealth of great theater that is abundant for a city our size.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The injury to Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers, as well as other injuries to players on other NFL teams in the last couple of weeks, is a blow to the teams as they approach the regular season.They also point to the continuing folly of having four preseason games, a relic of the past that serves no purpose other than to provide additional revenue to owners of teams in the most popular and highest revenue sport in the country.
Published Aug. 20, 2015
No less an authority than the United States Department of Justice has cracked open the door to allowing tribes, which are sovereign states, to grow marijuana on their reservations. Could this mean more revenue for Wisconsin tribes?
Published Aug. 16, 2015
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee has theory of evolution, if not about the existence of man, at least about the way one man lives and gets along with another. "Seascape," the third Pulitzer play Albee wrote, opened at American Players Theatre in Spring Green over the weekend and like his other great works, it looks at the evolution of relationships with an unerring eye and sensibility.
Published Aug. 15, 2015
There's this guy, see, and he lives in a hot apartment in Paris and he's got these three ladies, all of whom think he's going to marry them and they drop in and out of his place and he keeps track of all this dropping in and out by using the timetables of the airlines that the three ladies work for.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Scott Walker is in danger of dropping off the radar screen unless someone lights a fire under him and gives him an injection of passion. He can learn a lot from the world of the theater, things that might actually make him seem like someone who cares.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Angela Iannone, one of the finest actors ever to grace a stage in Milwaukee, has been engaged in a love affair for the past six years with a man who died when he was only 59 years old.Not only that, but the man died in June of 1893. Edwin Booth was his name, the finest actor of his time, the brother of the man who killed Abraham Lincoln and the object of desire for Iannone who has crafted a series of play about this lover.
Published Aug. 11, 2015
The PGA tournament, the final major of the golf season, gets underway this week at the beautiful Whistling Straits near Sheboygan. It's a great tournament, a great site and a wonderful chance for thousands and thousands of spectators to see the world's best golfers up close and personal. So here's a series of do's and don'ts if you are planning to go to Whistling Straits.
Published Aug. 6, 2015
Tonight is the culmination of lord knows how many weeks when 10 Republican candidates for president gather in front of a bank of lights and television cameras for the first debate. These events bear absolutely no resemblance to a real debate. They are just a simple chance for candidates to repeat scripted phrases about every issue imaginable.