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 Feb. 26, 2015
After losing a half-million-dollar judgement, the City of Milwaukee is looking at ways to avoid paying the money. One of the solutions being explored is granting Silk a license in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
Published Feb. 24, 2015
Sports movies are among the greatest films ever made, so what better time to list the top 14 sports movies of all time than right after the Oscars?
Published Feb. 20, 2015
"God of Carnage" is a biting comedy about two couples who turn from civilized to animals before our very eyes. But when two of the actors can't remember their lines, the evening turns out to be a real dud.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
The owners Silk Exotic today won a big victory in federal court as a jury awarded them a judgement of almost half a million dollars for revenue lost because the city would not grant them a license for a Downtown strip club.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
Domestic violence is something that most of us think doesn't touch those close to us. But in fact this familial violence cuts across all economic, social, geographic and ethnic boundaries.
Published Feb. 17, 2015
Bo Ryan has been coaching for 30 years in Wisconsin and he's had success wherever he's been. What's more, he's done it with a unique coaching style that features a deliberate offense and a tenacious defense that has the Badgers ranked among the best teams in the country.
Published Feb. 15, 2015
"Bare: A Pop Opera" is a play that seems to have some potential. But when you actually see it, the story seems so dated that it's hard to grab onto the message.
Published Feb. 14, 2015
"The Amish Project" is a play about a murderous shooting in a one-room schoolhouse that took place in 2006. The message behind the play is the incredible sense of forgiveness of the community that had been so victimized. It makes you wonder how each of us would react.
Published Feb. 12, 2015
Scott Walker is busy running for president and that campaign means he's got to curry favor with rich guys. Sheldon Adelson, the casino emperor, is a rich guy who hates the idea of a casino in Kenosha. And Governor Walker is trying to keep this guy happy.
Published Feb. 10, 2015
He's 39 years old and shot an 82 just a week ago. Tiger Woods seems worn out, by injury, the spotlight, the scandals and the constant coaching changes that resulted in swing changes. It may well be that we have just about seen the last of him.