"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 donâ€™t know about changing me forever, but itâ€™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 Montejoâ€™s life became the sparkling star for a book, a libretto and some of the most incredible music youâ€™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, donâ€™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/
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 April 27, 2017
It's impossible to stop thinking about the production of "Carnival" currently being staged at In Tandem Theatre, which I reviewed on opening night last week and is a fascinating example of what can happen when you stretch yourself and dream big dreams.
Published April 25, 2017
Start with a girl, beautiful and rich. Then add in her uncle and guardian who wants to marry her so he can get the money and toss in a high-born stranger who also wants the girl's hand in marriage. What you have is Florentine's "Barber of Seville."
Published April 22, 2017
For 15 years, under the guidance of art therapist Lori Vance, ExYoMKE has gone one-on-one with some of the most disaffected children in Milwaukee, children of all races and genders, and tried to help them see the world through the eyes of an artist.
Published April 22, 2017
One of the most wonderful evenings at a theater is when the show starts on a high note and just keeps getting better and better until you get to an ending where your heart is lying on the floor and your eyes are clouded with tears. That's "Carnival."
Published April 21, 2017
"The Fantasticks" is a simple little musical, the longest running in history, about a boy and a girl and being in love. The problem in the Off the Wall Theatre production is that the boy can't hold up his end of the deal, and the whole production suffers.
Published April 20, 2017
When I'm moved, I write, and fortunately, with OnMilwaukee, I have a place for that writing. The series of Uber tales from the road have run intermittently, but this story, more than anything else, proved that words and social media have the power to spark action, to make a real difference.
Published April 18, 2017
There is nothing quite like the world of the carnies, who travel the country, state fair after state fair, luring spectators with claims of wonder and magic. And that world is coming to Milwaukee, believe it or not, in the tiny space at In Tandem Theatre.
Published April 15, 2017
What does it take to make a man great and what role do expectations, his and others, have on that quest? It's the issue before the house in "Great Expectations," the adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel that opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Published April 13, 2017
In Wisconsin, you can't bake cookies or cakes or brownies at home and legally sell them at a farmer's market or your kids' lemonade stand. But three women are fighting the law with the help of the powerful Institute for Justice.
Published April 13, 2017
Downtown Milwaukee will be getting a strip club, which could open well before the Bucks' new arena in 2018, thanks to a measure that is expected to win Common Council approval next week.