Bare: the Musical at New World Stages reminded me of a lot of community theater productions from my youth. Sloppy direction and staging, incoherent choreography that looks as if the recruited Home Economics teacher stole it from Janet Jackson videos, and singing that often has a mind—and a key—of its own.
Taylor Trensch and Jason Hite in Bare.
That’s the bad and the good news, because what Bare also has that so many of those shows did is heart, and a cast that is as much in love with the material as we are with them. Unlike the focus-room-deep musicals that have popped up of late, Bare’s premise and its cast members are on the stage to tell us a story, not to provide us with an empty outline in which our politically correct emotions are supposed to fill in the blanks—provided we purchase the mugs and T-shirts and soundtrack on the way out.
Set in an all Catholic high school in the present day (Bare originally premiered in New York in 2004, and, according to press releases, has been significantly retooled), Bare is, first, a gay love story between two male students, Jason and Peter (Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch). Without giving away too much of the plot, it’s enough to mention that Bare is not a comedy and the story is framed around the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
The Playbill reminds us that Hite and Trensch have appeared in productions of Spring Awakening, a piece of trivia that’s probably not going to shock theater-goers. Bare’s revamp is rooted in the SA, Hair revival, Next to Normal, and, of course, Rent school of hard knocks.
Intertwined around the main story is a soap-opera of characters and clichés, from the rebellious outsider Nadia (Barrett Wilbert Weed) to the hottie-naughty Ivy (Elizabeth Judd) to the Ma’am with Love schoolteacher Sister Joan (Missi Pyle). Intertwined around the theatrical conceit is the new generation of Glee and The Trevor Project. It will get better by the end, as Bare has scheduled anti-bullying talk-backs after the show.
A lot has changed in the past ten years (thank goodness), and Bare is almost dated. That’s a wonderful thing. But a lot hasn’t changed, and the show’s enjoyable songs by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere, with additional music by Lynne Shankel, along with Hartmere’s book, still work, and still remind you of every god-awful gay crush and threat and hellish day in the glory years of high school. To watch the stories unravel with gay men open-mouth kissing (and to be able to openly root for them) is something this reviewer never imagined he’d see in his lifetime. To watch it extend to the smiles the mostly-gay male theater-goers threw at one another during intermission, divine.
The young actors are all terrific, and when their voices work, hypnotic. Extra comic points for Weed’s deadpan delivery and Alice Lee’s zap-zinger naiveté timing. There’s a quite funny Hail Mary musical number that allows Pyle to shed her nun’s suit and have some fun, and some rather stiff, wooden lines by Jerold E. Solomon as Father Mike, the only true weak link in such a large cast.
Director Stafford Arima’s staging is uncomfortable at times, at other times, haphazard. His ballad build-up consists of “start song slow, turn to face crowd, belt!” And while you should be ignoring Travis Wall’s hand-on-body choreography as much as Miss Jackson would, do take a look at the snapshot Smartphone-photo-covered set by Donyale Werle. It feeds beautifully into the notion of bullying in the Internet age, and is the most apt thematic device of the evening.
If Bare has as much of a future as we want for the kids who bear the show’s burden, another revamp is needed. The kids are all right, we know, so give them the kind of direction and guidance they need. School them, guide them, and place them front and center with enough tools to thrill the most skeptic of audiences. They deserve our attentions.
Photos: Chad Batka.