bare: a pop opera has been called a “cult favorite.” First performed in Los Angeles in 2000, the show made its New York debut off-Broadway in 2004 and was presented in a revised version during the 2012-13 off-Broadway season. Diversionary Theatre has mounted its largest and most complex production to date in bringing the original version to San Diego. The result makes an A for effort, if not always for achievement.
Part of the problem lies with the show itself. Written by Jon Hartmere, Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, with Mr. Hartmere on lyrics and Mr. Intrabartolo on music, its strength (and perhaps a major reason for its “cult” status) is that it presents adolescent life and issues in a straightforward manner that doesn’t pander. On the other hand, the “pop opera” format means mostly that there are a larger than usual number of songs (35, as opposed to 24 or so in a traditional musical). The songs mostly are there to advance the plot and relatively few of them would qualify as “aria,” where the characters get to express their feelings in a soaring, melodic, and emotional manner.
Mostly, these songs enhance the most melodramatic aspects of the story, creating “crises” that don’t matter in the long run and serving to soft-pedal the ones that do matter. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, it’s an unnecessarily long slog, though the sing-a-lot format does tend to hook in viewers by providing one soap-operaish kick-in-the-teeth after another.
Set in a Catholic boarding school, bare vaguely follows the structure of the school’s spring play, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jason (Charlie Gange) is the most popular boy in the school – he’s sought after by the girls and the other boys. Jason lets his status provide him with the ability to be friendly to all and close to none – he’s basically a good kid and very kind to his twin sister, Nadia (Samantha Vesco), an overweight girl who sharply feels her outcast status.
Jason has another reason for trying to exploit his status, though: he’s hiding that he has fallen for Peter (Dylan Mulvaney), his roommate. He’s been able to keep their romance confined to places out-of-sight of the others, though Peter’s growing discomfort with the “closet” he’s living in continually creates problems, first around the edges and then unmistakably on center stage.
Cast as Romeo, Jason’s Juliet, Ivy (Katie Sapper), is as enamored with Jason as the character she’s play is with his. The results are similar to Shakespeare’s, though I’ll not bore you with the banal details.
I should comment that it is easy to compare bare with Spring Awakening, a far superior musical in every aspect. The key difference between these two is that in bare the same-sex love story is front and center, while in Spring Awakening it’s a secondary plot line.
Nevertheless, bare is worth being produced despite its shortcomings, and Diversionary has clearly worked hard to bring it to life. Michael von Hoffman’s creative scenic design features moving panels that effectively shift location in the cinematic fashion demanded. Peter Herman has costumed the show as fancifully as possible, and Kevin Anthenill has provided an effective sound design, given a cast of fifteen performers. Music Director Tony Houck leads a tight four-piece band perched high overhead. [php snippet=1]Director Noah Longton stages the show efficiently, with a particular eye toward keeping things from getting bogged down. There’s lots of scene changes, but the pace never sags – and that’s a noteworthy accomplishment. Unfortunately, the down side to efficiency is that the characters tend to be one-dimensional. Now, quite a bit of this problem stems from the book, but the cast also tends to play what’s written without adding a lot more. Ivy pouts, Peter pouts, and Jason tries to keep both of them mollified – until things become too much for him. The relief to this pattern comes from sharp-tongued Nadia, as well as from Kiani Nelson as Sister Chantelle, the nun who is directing Romeo and Juliet, as well as providing Peter with a sympathetic ear (and – a way to answer his prayers). Both of these roles are written for their performers to light up the stage whenever they’re around, and Ms. Vesco and Ms. Nelson both fulfill their assigned duties with aplomb.
To the rescue as well comes choreographer Michael Mizerany. Mr. Mizerany imbues the musical numbers with character and flair, and his dances give the other performers some dimension. You may not always agree with Mr. Mizerany’s choreographic choices, but you’ll always find your eyes glued to what his dancers’ are doing.
In the end, bare may have aimed to strip away the layers of denial that living in the closet brings, but in practice it never gets that raw. Still, there’s enough in both the material and the production to invite a closer look. The show runs through August 3 in University Heights.