Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ground control to Major Barnes

BAAY achieves low earth orbit
by Christopher Key

Steve Barnes’ mind doesn’t operate the way most of ours’ do.  For that, we should be forever grateful because he takes us to places we would not otherwise go.  One of the resident geniuses at Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth, Barnes is among the reasons BAAY has been wildly successful at turning out students whose theatrical and musical talents never fail to exceed expectations.  Even when those expectations have become ridiculously high over the years.  I know this because I keep casting BAAY graduates in my own shows.

Barnes’ fertile imagination has created another original musical called The Skylark and it is both stirring and touching.  I’m not sure how he does this.  If I knew, I’d be writing musicals instead of reviews.  His work is always otherworldly, for lack of a better description.  In The Skylark, he creates a utopian society that has rejected science in favor of agrarian stability.  In doing so, he gives “grounded” a whole new meaning.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

This society is led by an Earth Mother type whose hippie consciousness conceals an incipient thought-control tyrant.  Kenzie Knapp portrays this character with an authenticity that any veteran of the 1960s will recognize immediately.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Despite all her efforts, her son, Lamarque, is looking up instead of down.  He sees the stars and wants to know the wherefore and the why.  John Malquist plays him with an ethereal innocence and idealism that will wrench your heart.  It’s tempting to think of this character as Barnes’ alter ego, but I think Professor Granular is a better fit.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

The good professor is the very image of the mad scientist whose experiments may blow up and kill lots of people on occasion, but who doesn’t let that slow him down.  Henry Winslow perfectly captures that mad gleam in the eye that you can see in portraits of Tesla, Einstein, and Feynman.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Carmen Souza plays the Professor’s daughter with the genuine intensity of a true believer.  She doesn’t speak to her schoolmates because they live in different worlds and there is no basis for communication.  The good hippie kids in her class torment her unmercifully, but she finds a soul-mate in Lamarque.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Barnes has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor and it gets thoroughly unleashed in the character of Copernicus, an android created by the Professor.  Anya Seegers is simply brilliant in the role of the humanoid who dreams of nothing more than being able to taste pie.  Her two sistoids are played equally well by Melissa Burke-Manwaring and Elsie Dank.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Zoë Taylor doesn’t get much stage time as schoolteacher Miss Jessup.  But she deserves enormous credit for creating the evocative choreography.

Throughout the play, I kept being reminded of the late David Bowie, both because of the subject matter and because Barnes’ music and lyrics are worthy of that comparison.  You’ll find it hard to believe that young actors and singers can perform at this level, but that’s BAAY in a nutshell.

Ashley Suloway-Baker delivers a dazzling lighting design, Walt Souza is responsible for the nifty set design and Costume Goddess Genny Cohn does her usual amazing thing.

There are eight performances of this very contemporary musical running from March 10 – 20.  For precise times and ticketing information, see the BAAY website.

Steve Barnes is an apparently incurable optimist and The Skylark is thoroughly contagious.  Catch it.

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