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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I Hear a Musical Hybrid

Skylight’s premiere of Daron Hagen’s new production

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Written especially for the Skylight Music Theatre and directed by the composer Daron Hagen, I Hear America Singing arrives as something of a mixed bag. It’s described as a hybrid of musical and opera, and purports to be a reinvention of traditional ballads and with adaptations of poems by William Blake, A.E. Housman and Gertrude Stein. The unlikely combination of styles seems as remote and unfamiliar as Hagen’s unusual treatment of the traditional ballads, which oddly seem unable to hit a chord of familiarity although some melodies can be identified—barely. Part of the problem lies with Hagen’s own musical inclinations, which resemble a sophisticated form of postmodernism with more than a touch of dissonance verging on atonality.

Yet despite the strangeness of the approach, the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts and never fails to intrigue the audience. Much of this is due to a connecting storyline combining a recently divorced couple—Broadway veterans Roger (Rick Pendzich) and Rose (Carol Greif)—with their former stage director Robbie (Robert Frankenberry), who seeks to reunite them in a new production. The repartee holds the show together with a uniformly excellent cast taking on singing roles. The strong, well-balanced voices bring focus to the show, giving the proceedings their important touch of humanity. Frankenberry also plays the score on piano.

The Skylight’s I Hear America Singing runs through June 1 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets call 414-291-7800 or visit broadwaytheatrecenter.com.