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The Bold and the Beautiful
The Skylight's "Hydrogen Jukebox" Is a Vibrant Tribute to an American Original

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything as completely original on a major Milwaukee stage as the weird and wonderful Hydrogen Jukebox, which opened this weekend at the Skylight Theater. You’d expect that, of course, from a collaboration between poet Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass. But the Skylight Production defies expectations from its opening bass thrum to its powerfully simple finale.

The title, Hydrogen Jukebox, is taken from Ginsberg’s “Howl” (“…listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”). And there is certainly plenty of “doom” here. From the apocalyptic intonations of “Jaweh and Allah Battle” to the post-nuclear fantasia of “Nagasaki Days,” Ginsberg’s poems don’t shy away from the real and imagined horrors of the second half of the 20th century. But there is tenderness here as well. And an open road travelogue of the American landscape that celebrates the simple joys of modern life.

The original production of Hydrogen Jukebox played heavily on that American spirit, outfitting its six singers as “average” Jane’s and Joe’s—a cheerleader, a policeman, a waitress, etc.

Here, directors Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur take a different approach. Jason Orlenko’s costumes are neutral and almost identical—gray pants, white shirts, an elegant '50s-style conformity--and the six vocalists read more as an ensemble than as archetypes. Using simple rolling furniture—and Sven Ortel’s exquisite projections—the bare stage takes on certain archetypal locations: a mid-century office and living room, a rolling highway, a starlit field. And early in the show, one of the singers, Dan Kempson, steps forward as a stand-in for the poet (he reads the poems that Ginsberg himself read in the original production), the transparent eyeball and consciousness through which we see this particular America. And against this rich but grayscale backdrop, Ginsberg's poetry emerges in all its technicolor dreaminess.

Dan Kempson. Photo by Mark FrohnaAnd what an America it is--the nuclear arms race, Vietnam, environmental activism, Iran-Contra. Ginsberg wanted to cover it all. But he also wanted to blend the personal with the political. And so there are scenes describing lovers, family funerals, and Kerouac-style All-American road trips. Like Whitman, he wanted to contain (or describe) multitudes, which, of course, is tied to his poetic style—lines and stanzas crammed full of quixotic, sometimes surreal descriptions. It’s an odd mix—a minimalist composer like Glass and a maximalist poet. But as the Skylight production shows, it works—sometimes ravishingly.

Conductor Vishwa Subbaraman, who is also the Skylight Artistic Director, balances the sound in favor of the voices. Typically, Glass’s compositions for his signature ensemble—mostly composed of electronic keyboards and woodwinds—are played with rip-roaring tempos and volume. But here, the accompaniment is subdued and—in the first act, at least—a little sheepish (Subbaraman seemed to turn it up a notch in Act Two). The voices are not amplified, and they fill the Cabot Theatre space gorgeously. Every one of the six-person ensemble had their turn with some solo passages, but Glass’s music was at its luscious best in several choral passages, particularly in the show’s powerful finale.

Here, in a setting of Ginsberg’s “Father Death Blues,” the directors perhaps reveal the reason behind their slightly revisionist production. Ginsberg wrote this elegy upon the death of his father in 1976, and he often performed it as a song, accompanying himself on the harmonium, a simple accordion. When Hydrogen Jukebox premiered in 1993, Allen Ginsberg was alive and mostly well. But today, “Father Death” becomes an elegy for its author, and the Skylight production treats it as such. Glass’s music is a cappella and richly harmonized, evoking hymns or spirituals. The singers slowly enter the empty stage and converge behind a desk, where the Ginsberg character has previously been seen writing poetry. As the song ends, the desk is slowly wheeled off stage, and the curtain falls as the Ginsberg character walks off, intoning the final lines of the poem:

Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell.

Photos by Mark Frohna.

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