Matthew Reddin

Skylight’s Hydrogen Jukebox Wowed Me

Philip Glass meets Alan Ginsberg in oddball but captivating musical theater piece.

By - Mar 19th, 2014 04:40 pm
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The Skylight's season gets truly revolutionary with "Hydrogen Jukebox," a Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg collaboration that offers a stark look at American society. All "Hydrogen Jukebox" photos by Mark Frohna.

The Skylight’s season gets truly revolutionary with “Hydrogen Jukebox,” a Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg collaboration that offers a stark look at American society. All “Hydrogen Jukebox” photos by Mark Frohna.

Wow. Just wow.

That’s how I still feel days after catching the opera Hydrogen Jukebox at the Skylight Music Theatre. Not as much for the singing itself – although the sextet performing was marvelous – but for the sheer audacity of producing it.

To explain: Hydrogen Jukebox is a chamber opera created after a chance encounter between avant-garde composer Philip Glass and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, which combines Glass’s music and Ginsberg’s poetry into one work examining issues of the mid-20th century. Both have their obstacles to mainstream success. Glass’ works are atmospheric, and occasionally minimalist. Ginsberg’s poems are abstract, chaotic and littered with obscenities. But there’s beauty in both, if you’re brave enough to give them a chance.

And there’s greater beauty in their synthesis, as seen on the Cabot stage. It doesn’t seem so at first, with the curtain rising upon a completely bare stage, but the six performers (Erica Schuller, Megan Williams, Kristen DiNinno, Ben Robinson, Dan Kempson and Michael Scarcelle) soon begin to reshape and transform it into the setting for 20-odd vignettes using modular furnishings and often epic projections upon the back wall (designed by Sven Ortel).

This production of "Hydrogen Jukebox" ditches the original's worker archetypes and goes for simple costuming for complex effect.

This production of “Hydrogen Jukebox” ditches the original’s worker archetypes and goes for simple costuming for complex effect.

The earliest production of Hydrogen Jukebox, in 1990, cast its six characters in the role of six American archetypes, but I won’t bore you with the details of that because stage director Ted Huffman has been wise enough to omit them. Instead, we get a team of blank slates clad in charcoal slacks, white dress shirts, silvery ties and thin black cardigans, occasionally led by a writerly type presumably meant to evoke Ginsberg (Kempson) but otherwise content to fit themselves into whatever story Ginsberg’s words suggest, be it a debaucherous party interrupted by lines about the war brewing between Israel and Palestine, romantic evenings with male lovers in Calcutta or the mountains of Denver, or violent evocations of the Iran-Contra affair and the CIA’s involvement with drug trafficking. Their elusiveness also makes them elegant in the opera’s more abstract scenes, kinetic ballets of motion that become as haunting as the words and music that surrounds them.

Ginsberg's text is projected on the back wall of the Cabot Theatre while the six-person cast performs, a fitting reminder of the piece's literary roots.

Ginsberg’s text is projected on the back wall of the Cabot Theatre while the six-person cast performs, a fitting reminder of the piece’s literary roots.

Literally surrounds them, in some cases. In addition to the larger projections, images of war and Eastern sunrises and nuclear explosions, Ginsberg’s poems themselves are often thrown up on that back wall, stark transcripts in foot-high Courier font. It’s both a helpful visual aid – Glass’ score is lightning-fast, and it’s sometimes hard to make out what the cast is saying, especially when the women get into their upper register – and a subtle yet effective way of making his words more paramount, and helps their punch hit harder.

Glass’ score (conducted by Viswa Subbaraman) is an electric rush of sounds, many of them laced with a telltale ‘80s vibe that ironically seems timeless now, thanks to the decade’s recent resurgence in our popular culture. The six singers on stage often find themselves singing notes that vibrate against each other, either from distance on the scale or too-close, discordant proximity – but it’s when they actually match up into minor harmonies that it sounds the most chilling.

Hydrogen Jukebox is a hard-to-follow musical experience that you somehow can’t help but understand – because they’re telling a story we already know, and just have to be courageous enough to face it. Not enough were on opening night, by my count, but there’s still time to switch on the jukebox. It’s a new tune for the Skylight, but I hope it’s the sort of song that’ll catch on.

Hydrogen Jukebox runs through March 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $22.50 to $65.50 and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight’s online box office.

PREVIEW: T.I.M. (The Improvised Musical)

It’s a quiet week in Milwaukee theater, which means you have no excuse to check out one of the hottest tickets in the city: T.I.M. (The Improvised Musical). It’s just what it sounds like – a comedy troupe that assembles once a month to make up a brand-new piece of musical theater from scratch, with a little help from their friends in the audience and a live band that builds a score from scratch alongside the actors.

T.I.M. (The Improvised Musical) opens and closes a brand-new musical every month, with often-unexpected results.

T.I.M. (The Improvised Musical) opens and closes a brand-new musical every month, with often-unexpected results.

It’s a formula that’s worked out great for the artists who’ve been a part of T.I.M.’s nearly-three-year run. Mary Kelly, who joined with the original cast in summer 2011, and Robby McGhee, who’s been with the group almost as long, say the group’s origins stem from a regional ComedySportz competition, where a group from Minnesota performed an entire show through song. Artistic director and performer Jacob Bach was at the show, and was inspired to build something similar, teaming up with Mary Baird, the group’s producer, and pulling together a collection of friends to give it a shot.

The T.I.M. format’s stayed pretty much the same since those early days. Each night, six to eight actors begin the show by asking for suggestions from the audience, picking the first or best option they hear – anything from “The Call” or “Fiddler on the Bed” to “Zombie Day Care,” “Nursing Home Vigilante” or “Gotham City Graveyard.” Then, after a minute to get their bearings, the band strikes themselves up, and they’re off, hurdling through two acts of the temporarily unknown.

Like any improv show, there’s weird places here and there, but McGhee says the strong bonds between the group members help get them through. Even on weeks they aren’t performing, T.I.M. members rehearse a full show every Thursday – bonding at its finest – and in advance of this month’s show, they’ve even gone on their first-ever T.I.M. retreat, to help connect with some new members and understudies.

Incorporating the musical element has some practical benefits too. “We have a rule,” McGhee says, “Talk until you can’t talk anymore. Then start singing. And when you can’t sing anymore, start dancing. It usually seems to work.” But he adds that singing their feelings isn’t just a way to work their way out of corners – it’s a core component of what makes T.I.M. work. “Music has this ability to heighten emotions, and that sort of tool is great for doing long-form improv. Because you really get a chance to get to know these people and what they’re capable of musically.”

While T.I.M. was born as a comedy group, Kelly says the troupe is largely comprised of actors doing improv, not the other way around, and that means they tend to focus on character and story over jokes. “We find that when we can really get into the emotional basis of the character and focus on that as opposed to making people laugh that more exciting things organically come,” she says.

Sometimes, that means bringing their own experiences into the game, for better or for worse. “If I’m having a bad day, I can get on that stage and take it out on whoever’s up there with me, and I know they can do the same thing with me and have it be fine,” McGhee says. Sometimes that makes for poignancy – McGhee and Kelly recall a rehearsal show that left the group in tears after a particularly deep scene – and sometimes it’s just what’s needed to keep them connected.

The simultaneous tragedy and glory of T.I.M. is that every performance is the opening and closing night of whatever musical they create, but the company’s creative output isn’t always as ephemeral. McGhee incorporated elements of shows they’ve improvised into his first musical, The Burden of Being, which he developed this fall with some help from fellow T.I.M. members, and he’ll be performing in another T.I.M. offshoot musical by Patricio Amerena later this spring, called Creatures of Doubt. And the company has also begun offering courses in musical improv for beginners, a big step for a company that a few years ago was still figuring out how to do this themselves.

But at the end of the day, Kelly and McGhee say T.I.M. is more about the feeling of performing with their friends and colleagues than getting bigger and bigger without purpose. “It’s unlike any other rush I’ve had in any other show in my life,” McGhee says. “In a world where anything can happen, it’s cool to see what comes up. And to see how you get there.”

T.I.M. (The Improvised Musical) takes place at ComedySportz at 7:30 p.m. every third Thursday of the month, with upcoming shows on March 20, April 17, May 15, June 19, and their 3rd anniversary show July 17. Tickets are $5 (cash only) and reservations are always recommended. Call (414) 272-8888 to order, or visit the T.I.M. website for more information.


Uprooted Theatre: The Sunset Limited, through March 20

Theatrical Tendencies: The Temperamentals, through March 22

Milwaukee Rep: An Iliad, Quadracci Powerhouse, through March 23

The World’s Stage Theater Company: Amadeus, through March 23


Sunset Playhouse: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, through April 6

Fireside: Mary Poppins, through April 20

Milwaukee Rep: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stackner Cabaret, through May 18

0 thoughts on “Theater: Skylight’s Hydrogen Jukebox Wowed Me”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Having seen the current film on the young Allen Ginsburg this past summer, and having always admired his poem Howl and Philip Glass’s music, I definitely would like to see Hydrogen Jukebox after reading your review!

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