At the close of “Hydrogen Jukebox” a musical event presented Friday and Sunday by the Georgetown Uni
versity Department of Performing Arts in conjunction with the American Opera Theater - I recalled a puckish observation made by the late Frank Zappa. An alternative rocker, Mr. Zappa created a 1967-68 album titled “Lumpy Gravy,” describing it as “a curiously inconsistent piece which started out as a ballet but probably didn’t make it.”
The same could fairly be said of “Hydrogen Jukebox,” a collaborative effort of minimalist composer Philip Glass and poet Allen Ginsberg. Perceived, more or less, as an operatic work, it debuted at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., in 1990.
In reality, “Jukebox” is a song cycle that sets to music a series of Ginsberg poems that sweep from the Beat period to about the time of the Gulf War. There’s no plot to speak of. Rather, the Glass-Ginsberg team - born-again Buddhists in their own way - re-imagined the eternal cycle of birth, death and renewal as a musical tapestry painted in New Age colors against a gamelanlike percussive background.
Director Tim Nelson restructured the duo’s disordered concept into a more coherent whole consisting of 19 musical tableaux in two acts for these performances. In the process, he clarified the original concept as a story arc in which America rises and self-immolates on the funeral pyres of suburbia, greed and the military-industrial complex.
This isn’t a leap of the imagination. It’s all there in Ginsberg’s work, and Mr. Nelson draws it out. A rumpled bear of a man, Mr. Ginsberg evolved into the clown prince of American poetry, envisioning himself as the reincarnation of Walt Whitman via the mythical dialectic of William Blake and the sublimity of Lord Buddha to become the self-appointed bard of the U.S. anti-Vietnam War movement.
Setting a representative selection of his poems to new music penned by Philip Glass was an inspired idea. Many regard Mr. Glass’s repetitious music as beyond tedious, but it actually works here. Mr. Ginsberg was deeply into Eastern mysticism and loved to chant his and others’ poetry in public performances. The very repetitiousness of Mr. Glass’s score replicates this chanting, illuminating Mr. Ginsberg in a way not possible when reading his long, biblical lines on a printed page - the way most students first encounter it.
The three performances of “Hydrogen Jukebox” staged in Georgetown University’s nearly new Gonda Theatre were a collaboration involving student singer-actors and professional musicians, all under the direction of Mr. Nelson and music director C. Paul Heins.
Complaints? A few. The young singers were not professionals, and it sometimes showed in pitch and enunciation. The production’s moving backdrop photo and film montages were occasionally cliched and distracting. Also, Mr. Ginsberg’s anti-U.S. jeremiads have grown tiresome over the decades.
Yet this production was rehearsed exhaustively and executed smoothly, creating the kind of seamless alternative musical theater that larger ensembles rarely bother to do any more. A big hat tip to the cast and crew for bringing something musically refreshing to a city whose classical aficionados still prefer “La Boheme” and anything by Beethoven.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS