Somewhere close to the four-hour mark in “Bark of Millions,” the polychromatic cavalcade of splendor that is Taylor Mac and Matt Ray’s new rock opera, I finally realized why the woman in front of me had been reading on her phone throughout the performance. And why she had looked at me like I was way out of line when I couldn’t bear the glowing screen any longer, leaned forward and implored her to stop.
The words on her phone were excerpts from the show’s lyrics, a free digital version of the printed fan deck on sale at concessions. More than 50 songs in, she was grasping at that text in an attempt to follow along. Because the great frustration of “Bark of Millions,” which continues through Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, is that there are far too many songs in which the music drowns out the lyrics, making the meaning a bafflement. (Sound design is by Brendan Aanes.) In those moments, time decelerates.
If “Bark of Millions” were aiming to succeed on aural gorgeousness and visual spectacle alone, there would be no cause to quibble. Those are plentiful in Ray’s genre-hopping music, richly interpreted by the band he directs, and in Machine Dazzle’s ingeniously odd costumes, such as the sparkly pastel number in which Mac begins the evening, looking like Weird Barbie as an acid-tinged sprite, dressed for Versailles by way of ’60s Vegas.
But Mac’s vivid, often poetic lyrics are not incidental. In the creation of the score, they were the starting point, each of the 55 songs inspired by a figure in queer history. It is a mosaic of a show, inherently political in its affirmation of queer heritage and community, though as Mac tells the audience, it is not a history lesson: “We beg you not to Google in your seats.”
Still, there are degrees of mystery, and I do not believe that “Bark of Millions” — which Mac, its principal director, describes aptly in a program note as “an opera-concert-song-cycle-musical-performance-art-piece-play” — means to leave us so much in the dark.
When it lets the light in, when the vocals are allowed to reach us unimpeded, this intermissionless show becomes glorious. Not in the way that “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” was, because it does not place Mac at its center and requires no audience participation, but more in the way that Mac and Ray’s “The Hang” was a couple of years ago: a crowded cast sharing the stage, taking turns strutting their considerable stuff, frequently sitting back to watch one another.
Mac nonetheless will break your heart at least a couple of times, particularly with the wistful, elegiac “Patterson’s Lovers,” a portrait of a Manhattan age that AIDS erased, and make you laugh with the silly-sweet “Margaret Cho,” an ode to the comedian tucked inside an anecdote about Cowgirl, a West Village institution.
Machine Dazzle is the one who blindsides, though. Best known as a designer, but a performer as well, he sings the devastatingly desolate “Greta Garbo,” with silent-movie expressiveness, from one of the Harvey’s peeled-paint upper boxes. Of the numerous other standouts, here is a sampling: Thornetta Davis in the bluesy “BDB Women”; Ray in the spare, piano-bar style “Stormé DeLarverie”; Wes Olivier in the rafter-shaking “Audre Lorde”; Le Gateau Chocolat in everything.
Co-directed by Niegel Smith and Faye Driscoll, who is also the choreographer, “Bark of Millions” ends gently, with Mac and Ray in tender duet. But the show as a whole is not finished yet. Mac writes in a program note that it started with 54 songs, “one for every year since the world’s first Pride Parade.” Movingly, elegantly, the idea is that the piece will grow each year.
Just please, in the next stage iteration, greater sonic clarity?
Bark of Millions
Through Feb. 10 at the BAM Strong Harvey Theater, Brooklyn; bam.org. Running time: 4 hours and 15 minutes.