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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: August 16, 2017

Maine-made rock opera ‘One Way Trip to Mars’ premieres in Waterville

Written by: Bob Keyes
Music director Jeff Buchsbaum and cast member Cory Gibbons rehearse at Bath City Hall.

Music director Jeff Buchsbaum and cast member Cory Gibbons rehearse at Bath City Hall. Photos courtesy of “One Way Trip to Mars”

One of the most ambitious new musicals to originate in Maine gets its premiere this weekend at the Waterville Opera House. With overtones of David Bowie and a nod to The Who, “One Way Trip to Mars: A Rock Opera” tells a love story about a heroic journey into space and the emotional and human toll of establishing life on Mars.

With more than two dozen songs, the story is told entirely with music written by Peter Alexander and Johannah Harkness of Bath. Dennis St. Pierre, who also lives in Bath, directs the show. The cast includes singers from New York who auditioned there in the spring. One of the leads is the singer Fantine, who had a dance club hit in 2014 and has worked with pop stars Gloria Estefan and Wyclef Jean. She plays the female lead, Cassandra.

Director Dennis St. Pierre (in orange) works with the cast of "One Way Trip to Mars" at Bath City Hall. Photos courtesy of One Way Trip to Mars

Director Dennis St. Pierre (in orange) works with the cast of “One Way Trip to Mars” at Bath City Hall.

A rock band provides the music, and the set will include a life-size space capsule and space-travel videos projected against a large backdrop that’s framed to suggest a launch pad. There’s drama, action and tragedy — and ultimately hope, love and a message about sustaining life.

“It’s about community, and it’s very much pertinent to our times,” St. Pierre said. “It’s so important to think about these things right now.”

Husband and wife, Alexander and Harkness began writing songs after watching TV shows about space exploration. In one program they watched, they learned about an effort in Europe to send private citizens on a one-way trip to Mars to colonize the planet.

A psychologist, Harkness’ first reaction was: What about the people left behind? She began writing from the perspective of heartbreak and the emotions of the partners and children who stay on earth.

She conceived the piece as a rock opera from the beginning and began crafting a story about Paolo, the first human to fly a solo, one-way mission to Mars. Cassandra is his wife, the one who is left behind.

Last year, she and Alexander staged a series of multimedia concerts around the music they wrote for the show. This spring, they recruited St. Pierre to give the show more theatricality and dramatic arc. Together, they created additional characters, refined the story and wrote more songs.

One of the songs they came up with is called “Monuments,” an anthem sung by Cory Gibson, who plays the character of the mission control director, Hector. The song comes during a poignant moment and is a tribute to the unsung heroes whose work makes the mission possible.

St. Pierre suggested the song after reading a quote from a janitor at NASA during the Apollo moon missions, who, when asked by a journalist about his role, answered, “My job is to get a man on the moon.'”

“That quote spoke volumes to me,” St. Pierre said. “We needed to write Hector an anthem, and that got us going.”

Cast members Pepe Nufrio and Marta Rymer practice a dance sequence.

Cast members Pepe Nufrio and Marta Rymer practice a dance sequence.

The cast rehearsed in Bath at City Hall, in the basement and in the auditorium. Gibson, whose voice is reminiscent of Aaron Neville, drew a crowd of other cast members, city employees and curious onlookers when he sang “Monuments.”

“These songs, they have something about them,” said Fantine, who was among those who stopped what she was doing so she could hear Gibson sing. “They hit you in the heart straight-away.”

In this show, Mars is a character, played by the actress Marta Rymers, whose primary role is to embody the planet and lure Paolo into her mysterious orbit. Dressed in red, she brings the planet to life with a seducing flamenco dance that tempts and cajoles Paolo.

The rock opera is set in the not-too-distant year of 2033, which is when NASA has said it would like to send humans to Mars. “One Way Trip to Mars” has received attention from Explore Mars Inc., a nonprofit agency that is also working toward that goal. It invited Alexander to its annual conference this past spring to perform songs from the opera.

The organization has pledged to support the creative effort, and has said it would help Alexander and his artistic team prepare the show for larger venues, perhaps New York, if the premiere in Waterville goes well.

In addition to the performance, the creators have developed an educational component to help people understand the potential of space and Mars exploration. The outreach includes an art and science installation, created by students, that will be set up at the theater.


WHAT: “One Way Trip to Mars – a Rock Opera”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Waterville Opera House, 1 Common St., Waterville
TICKETS & INFO: $24 adults, $22 seniors; operahouse.org or onewaytriptomars.org

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