by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
bare: a pop opera is the one musical you need to see but probably never have. Nearly 11 years ago, bare debuted at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles, California, then moved to the American Theatre of Actors off-Broadway in New York, and today & most people have never heard of it. Despite a strong cult following, bare is barely known.
My journey into St. Cecilia's Boarding School (the Catholic school where bare takes place) began on July 31 at VanPride 2011 in Vancouver, B.C., as the annual Pride Parade passed by Robson Street. As my boyfriend and I watched the contingents pass, we saw the usual suspects: Speedo-clad muscle boys dancing atop floats advertising everything from nightclubs to restaurants, the fire department and their Trojan condom Trojans throwing out free product, and Seattle's very own Rainbow City Marching Band. In between our exclamations of, 'Wow, look at that one' or 'Which color of beads do we still need to catch?' Yee-Shin said, 'No way! bare has a float. I wonder where that is playing.'
I'd never heard of bare, and Yee-Shin launched into an excited tirade of just how amazing the musical, with book and album by Jon Hartmere, Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, is. As Yee-Shin continued to explain the story - which focuses on two Gay high school students and their struggles at their private Catholic boarding school - I began to think that this really was a production that I must see. But where?
While it may be true that 'seek and ye shall find,' the truth is that bare fell into my life like some sort of off-Broadway, starving artist divine intervention. There, pasted to a wall in Vancouver's Chinatown, was a poster which read, 'bare: a pop opera August 4-13.' As luck would have it, bare was being produced by Fighting Chance Productions (www.fightingchanceproductons.ca) at Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright St.) on Vancouver's Granville Island. Yee-Shin and I decided then and there that we would make the trip north in a week or two and watch the show - this decision, as dramatic as it might sound, would change the way I would view musical theater for the rest of my life.
At 8 p.m. on August 11, I got to see, in the perfectly intimate 250-seat Waterfront Theatre, what all the fuss was about. The talented cast of Fighting Chance Productions' bare: a pop opera gave me that feeling that many 'non-theater people' described when they first saw Rent. I couldn't take my eyes off the stage, I fought back tears, and above all, I believed each and every character and the story just as completely as I believe I am alive today. Director Ryan Mooney and company gave it their all, and the standing ovation from the capacity audience let them know it at curtain call.
So what is bare, and why should anyone give a shit? bare is life. It is the LGBT struggle. It is youth suicide and pressure. bare is real, lasting, and & us. bare is you and me and anyone else that has ever struggled to break out of their closet. Much more than a coming-out story or a high school crush gone bad, bare captures what so many musicals (and movies, for that matter) fail to: life.
Did I mention bare is a musical? Oh man, the soundtrack (lyrics by Hartmere, music by Intrabartolo) is so amazing. I can't stop listening to it. Much like - but better than - Rent, the songs are infectious, guttural, and just plain good. Whether the actors are singing about sex (yes, there is sex), drugs (the hard stuff), or rock 'n' roll (in church, even!), it all sounds great. In 2007, the full studio album from bare was released as a three-disc CD and DVD set. I issue one warning: Once you press play, you won't want to turn it off.
The August 11 bare featured a seven-member live band that beautifully backed up the Company on every one of the whopping 37 songs in the two-act pop opera.
bare opens on the Feast of the Epiphany at Mass in St. Cecilia's Boarding School. Peter (Braedon Cox), an altar boy, dozes off and has a nightmare in which he is outed and condemned by everyone. After Mass, Peter encounters Jason (Lucas Blaney), St. Cecilia's resident golden boy and most popular student - and his roommate and secret lover. Jason tries to assure Peter about their secret relationship with the beautiful ballad, 'You & I.' Peter asks Jason to audition for Romeo and Juliet, but Jason refuses. Afterward, by himself, Peter reflects his angst about his relationship with Jason ('Role of a Lifetime').
Blaney and Cox have wonderful chemistry together onstage. The two actors are instantly believable; every glance, note sung, and kiss is unforced, and you root for the two's budding love affair from the beginning. Vocally, Blaney and Cox sound wonderful, both in duet and solo.
At 'Auditions,' Sister Chantelle (Jennifer Suratos), the drama teacher, is dismayed by the lack of adept actors, until Jason shows up, to the shock of all present. He and Matt (Matt Parsons), another altar boy, battle for the part of Romeo. In the end, Jason is cast as Romeo; Ivy (Lena Dabrusin), Peter and Jason's friend and whom Matt is in love with, as Juliet; Peter as Mercutio; Matt as Tybalt; and Nadia (Emma Leigh Hillier), Jason's overweight, sharp-tongued twin sister, as the nurse. Jason attempts to console his sister, who wanted be Juliet, as she sings the introspective 'Plain Jane Fat Ass.' Opening a belated birthday gift, the siblings discover Jason has been accepted into Notre Dame (The song was replaced with 'Love, Dad' in the 2004 Off-Broadway production).
Suratos walks the perfect line between sassy and bitchy. Her voice offered so much to the production and I couldn't imagine a better Sister Chantelle if I tried. Parsons' vocal ability was a welcome delight to his character, while the real star out of all the company is Hillier, who plays the complex character - both sad and strong - Nadia.
Later, Matt attempts to plan a small surprise birthday for Ivy. Lucas (Jeremy Fornier-Hanlon), the school's party boy, plans a trip to a rave, bringing along ecstasy, K, and GHB. Fornier-Hanlon's rap in 'Wonderland' (as he plays drug dealer and bad boy effortlessly) was impeccable. The actor is a standout performer; a career worth following.
Seeing a scantily clad Ivy and her effect on Matt, Nadia decides to spend 'A Quiet Night at Home' and play her cello instead.
At the rave, Peter dances with Jason and Ivy with Matt. When Peter tries to kiss Jason, they argue outside over their secret relationship. Peter wants them to come out and make their relationship known but Jason refuses because he's afraid to be condemned and lose everything he has. Eventually, Peter and Jason kiss not knowing that Matt has seen everything.
The scene contains one of the bare's most powerful songs, 'Best Kept Secret,' which Blaney and Cox performed wonderfully. Songs like 'Best Kept Secret' are the stuff that goosebumps are made of.
The next morning, the students gather for confession. Matt and Peter nearly spill their respective secrets to the priest, Matt about seeing the kiss and Peter about being Gay. At the rehearsal, Sister Chantelle realizes she has her work cut out for her. Nadia jokes about Ivy's promiscuity, leading the latter to consider the impression she has on the other students.
In this scene, the audience is offered the heartfelt 'Portrait of a Girl,' which Dabrusin sang in perfect pitch.
Matt's get-together becomes a huge party due to Nadia's planning. Peter accidentally eats pot brownies and begins flirting with Jason. A drunk Ivy does the same and is chosen over Peter to save face, leading Peter to storm off. Matt leaves as well when Ivy ignores his advances. Ivy asks Jason to kiss her as a birthday gift, and he reluctantly agrees.
Matt leaves the party to sit alone with a bottle of wine and express his frustration while Peter's nearby doing the same with respect to Jason. They discover one another, drink, and comfort each other with the song, 'Are You There?' At one point, a drunk and high Peter whispers to Matt the true nature of his relationship with Jason. Matt takes his leave and heads to bed while Peter has a vision of a Sister Chantelle-like Virgin Mary and two angels. She tells him that he needs to come out to his mother in '911! Emergency!'
In the sometimes funny, but oh-so-soulful and camp '911! Emergency!' Suratos as Sister Chantelle and Cox as Peter really shine, not only as vocalists (and dancers!) but also as actors. The number was one of the show's best, all because the two work so well together onstage. Cox's dancing was as Gay as can be, which added to the lightheartedness of the scene.
At rehearsal, Romeo and Tybalt's fight scene becomes real as Matt abandons the script and tackles, calling him a 'faggot.' Peter tells Jason about his vision and asks him to come home with him for spring break so he can come out. Jason panics, afraid of what his dad might do if he ever found out, and breaks up with Peter, singing 'Ever After' - another standout performance from the talented Cox.
Later, Nadia sings a hilarious song she wrote about spring. Peter leaves for spring break without a word to Jason, and Ivy shows up at Jason's dorm to apologize for her actions at her party. Jason tells her, 'It was cute,' so Ivy goes in for more. Peter and Matt pout, respectively, for Jason and Ivy. Nadia wishes to be noticed, and Jason sleeps with Ivy, hoping that this is the right thing to do.
And then it all gets real.
In Act II, bare doesn't stray from the storyline for sake of catchy show tunes and cheesy dancing. In contrast, bare becomes a kind of The Real World Off-Broadway - this is what happens when musicals stop being corny and start getting real. You will, above anything else, need a tissue to dry your tears.
Like the first act, the second opens in the chapel, which is decorated elaborately for Peter and Jason's wedding, but then the wedding turns into Jason and Ivy's (Peter is having a dream). Later, class ranks are posted, and Jason has achieved the valedictorian spot, once again besting Matt.
Ivy tells Jason that for the first time, she has fallen in love even though she's been with other boys before but Jason realizes he's still in love with Peter and breaks it off with Ivy, which devastates her.
Peter calls his mother, Claire (Nancy von Euw), to come out, but she sidesteps the point in the 'coming out' song 'See Me.'
Claire hangs up, shaken as she knew exactly what Peter wanted to say. She eventually learns that her love of Peter is stronger than her religion, and she accepts him.
The talented and appropriately cast von Euw delivered a teary-eyed version of 'Warning,' in which her character laments that there was no way for her to prepare for the news that her son is Gay.
With two weeks to go before the show, Ivy misses rehearsal again, claiming to be sick. Sister Chantelle asks Ivy's inept understudy, Diane, to be Juliet. As Diane stumbles and forgets her lines, Peter takes over, and for a moment, all is well as Peter dances with Jason ('Pilgrim's Hands'). Then Ivy shows up at the last minute.
Sister Chantelle cancels rehearsal and Peter leaves. Ivy pulls Jason aside and says she has something she needs to tell him, and he agrees to talk before the student-led rehearsal later.
After the other students leave, Peter returns to pick up his things and Sister Chantelle tells Peter that she knows what's bothering him and that he is just as God wishes him to be, singing, 'God Don't Make No Trash.'
Nadia returns to her dorm room and argues with Ivy about missing rehearsal. She assumes it's because Jason broke up with her, but Ivy reveals that she's pregnant in 'All Grown Up.' Ivy finds Jason practicing his valedictory address in the auditorium, and reveals that she is pregnant and she still loves him. Matt comes in and reveals to Ivy that the reason why Jason can't love her is because he's already in love with Peter. At that point, Peter and Nadia arrive. Peter, Jason, and Matt exchange heated words, and Peter admits he told Matt, and is not sorry for it. The rest of the cast, who were waiting for rehearsal to begin, is revealed to have been waiting in the auditorium, having heard everything.
When Peter and Jason are alone, Jason begs Peter for help, but Peter says he tried and leaves.
Jason, understandably distraught, reflects on his relationship with Peter and how, even through his fear, he knows that it is the only thing that will comfort him in 'Once Upon a Time.' Having nowhere else to go, Jason goes to the priest to ask if God still loves him and can forgive him. The priest ultimately says that Jason will only be fine if he denies his natural feelings ('Cross').
During rehearsal, Lucas passes out the drug orders (K and GHB) and tells Jason that they're still cool. Jason tells Peter that he talked to the priest about their relationship to show Peter that he still cared ('Two Households'). Jason asks Peter to run away with him, but Peter refuses to run and tells him it's over, as he's had his fill of hiding and running away.
Jason, thinking that means he's lost Peter for good, takes a lethal dose of GHB. As the school play begins, Jason again pulls Peter aside telling him that he has always loved him since they first met and Peter tells him he loves him too, and if they part it's not goodbye in the show's title song, 'Bare.'
During the show, Jason becomes increasingly disoriented. During the Queen Mab speech, he loses his place and begins to hallucinate. During the masked ball scene he collapses, reaching for Peter, and Peter holds him as he dies of a drug overdose.
Peter goes to confession, this time about Jason's last visit. Understanding his role in Jason's death, the priest asks Peter for forgiveness, which Peter grants, albeit angrily in 'Absolution.'
At graduation, Peter, Matt, Ivy, and Nadia wonder whether or not they could have prevented Jason's death and consider the role they played in it. The graduates all move forward into a world that will yield more questions than answers in 'No Voice.'
And it's over. Just like that. Just like how it really happens in life - suicide, due to pressure from the closet, religion, and bullying in school. I warned you, bare is as real as it gets. There is no happy ending with jazz hands and the good guy winning the girl.
In this case, the creators of bare offer you a portrait of some young LGBT lives and, unapologetically, convey the complexity of high school, the freefall from falling in love, and the dangers of suffocating in a self- or society-imposed closet. Sure, you might leave the theater feeling a bit sad or reflective - but at least you are feeling something and you make a pact with yourself that we must do more, however big or small, within our own community to stop these suicides and support each other.
Perhaps director Ryan Mooney put it best: 'Enjoy the show - it's a tough but important piece, and I am honored to share it with you. After it's over, call someone, tell them you love them, and let them know you're there for them. I'm constantly amazed by how much small gestures can make or break someone's day.'
Watching bare: a pop opera with Yee-Shin on August 11 made my day, and as Mooney says, the words 'I love you' meant that much more after seeing the show.
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