BWW Reviews: Glass and Ginsberg Inspire Cultural Revolution at Milwaukee's Skylight

BWW Reviews: Glass and Ginsberg Inspire Cultural Revolution at Milwaukee's Skylight

"One raindrop begins the universe..." writes Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in his revolutionary literary collection "HOWL." Only one word begins a poem. Only one note begins an opera. One step begins a journey, especially in the 2013-3014 season at the Skylight Music Theatre, that has amazed audiences with an exciting collection of productions towards the company's theme of revolution. Artistic Director and Music Director Viswa Subbaraman presented another cultural and personal revolution of two great artists by staging the work of composer Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg in the compelling production Hydrogen Jukebox.

The highly evocative and eerily serene Hydrogen Jukebox opening on a mid March Friday night challenges the casual theatergoer. Those who fill the seats and step along on Skylight's theatrical journey might eventually succumb to the sophisticated beauty of the production. In the pre-performance discussion, Subbaraman explained no stage directions accompany the musical score or libretto. The production's critical components to be decided by the company, at the Skylight, through Stage Director Ted Huffman and Stage Director/Choreographer Zack Winokur together with Lighting Designer Carrie Cavins and Projection Designer Sven Ortel.

The Cabot Theatre Stage stripped to the bare bones without scenery accentuates Cavin's and Ortel's brilliant lighting designs, where Ginsberg's verse projects on to the concrete walls or a desk in typewriter script so the audience can fully comprehend what is being read. Or appreciate the vintage newsreels illustrating the manning of warheads or watching an atomic bomb explode as the white mushroom cloud expands over the stage's back wall.

These creative, urbane elements to the production construct a performance intermingling film noir, modern dance and poetry reading set to Glass's resonant score. At the performance's central core, the actors and musicians (a small orchestra of six) perform what resembles a religious Gregorian chant or Indian Mantra crystallizing the revolution of American culture for the mid-quarter of the 20th century.

Six superb opera singers---Erica Schuller, Megan Williams, Kristen DiNinno, Ben Robinson, Dan Kempson and Michael Scarcelle---transform Ginsberg's free form, descriptive and intellectually penetrating words into harmonious, lyric rhythms. A performance that allows Glass's counterpoint and minimalistic score to soothe and seduce the audience into considering, even if only for one evening, these provocative philosophical journeys.

Monochromatic garments, grey slacks and versions of white shirts, t-shirts and tank tops, designed by Jason Orlenko echo the classic Calvin Klein vibe enhancing the black and white film noir component. Costumes that illustrate the essence and significance of Ginsberg and Glass to postmodern literature and music, so Hydrogen Jukebox can travel a chronological, linear course of both Ginsberg's life and changing American thought.

The musical journey winds through a country's controversial political,, sexual and environmental identities tinged with consumerism during the post war 1950's to the mid 1980's, with eventual grounding in the Kansas heartlands. In the second act, the poems revisit Ginsberg's iconic collection HOWL, where the once Beat Generation's underground ideas began to grow into prickly thorns and weeds on the path to the future America still tries to control well into the 21st century. While stirring pictures of manning military warheads and marching soldiers seen in the backdrop projections echo Ginsberg's age defying protest, whether speaking in strictly military or proactive social terms: "Who's the enemy, year after year?"

Be courageous and take that first step into the Skylight's Cabot Theatre for this mesmerizing evening of dance, poetry and music that coalesces into a captivating production to be remembered by Milwaukee audiences. Where the performance pierces the audeince's heart and mind, moves them to some emotional reaction. A rare opportunity to travel a musical journey from a deep philosophical perspective, where if one might be interested in the future of the arts in every genre, this show presents two artists who changed America's cultural landscape forever. The Skylight's operatic journey, whether effortlessly enjoyed or interestingly appreciated, travels the road of endless theatrical imaginations where freedom in creativity and speech endures.

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox featuring the poetry of Allen Ginsberg in the Cabot Theatre at Milwaukee's Broadway Theatre Center through March 30. The performance contains mature subject material and language. For information or tickets, please call: 414.291.7800 or

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Peggy Sue Dunigan Peggy Sue Dunigan earned a BA in Fine Art, a MA in English and then finished with a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Fiction from Pine Manor College, Massachusetts. Currently she independently writes for multiple publications on the culinary, performance and visual arts or works on her own writing projects while also teaching college English and Research Writing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her other creative energy emerges by baking cakes and provincial sweets from vintage recipes so when in the kitchen, at her desk, either drawing or writing, or enjoying evenings at any and all theaters, she strives to provide satisfying memories for the body and soul.


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