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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

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Michael Scarcelle and Kirsten DiNinno star in "Hydrogen Jukebox," now at Skylight Music Theatre.
Michael Scarcelle and Kirsten DiNinno star in "Hydrogen Jukebox," now at Skylight Music Theatre. (Photo: Mark Frohna)

Glass and Ginsberg are out of tune in "Hydrogen Jukebox"

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.

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