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Bare: a Pop Opera

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Of the many things that can be said about Bare, that it lacks heart and spirit cannot be among them. The show is breathlessly energetic, and an obvious labor of love crafted with care down to its smallest details. With great performances and strong music, the only thing Bare is really missing in part is a soul.

That proves somewhat damaging for the unquestionably engaging yet curiously unmoving pop opera, which just opened at the American Theatre of Actors and is scheduled to play through May 30. Bare directly takes on the battle between homosexuality and Catholicism with enormous gusto, but fails to fully capture its characters' central struggles on an emotional level.

Those characters are Peter and Jason, seniors at a Catholic boarding school, who are forced to deal with their mutual romantic attraction while trying to uphold the standards of their families and the Catholic Church. But creators Jon Hartmere, Jr. (book and lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (book and music) are less interested in telling a story about the characters' love than a story about a rebellion against the Church's doctrinal rigidity.

The way the show is crafted, it's difficult to feel for either side of the argument; Hartmere and Intrabartolo beautifully establish Peter and Jason, but the third major character - the Church itself - receives less thorough attention. It's primarily represented on the rear wall of David Gallo's set by a large stained-glass window displaying a cross, though it's also physically embodied by a Priest who occasionally appears to dispense what he believes is the Truth.

Hartmere and Intrabartolo's writing seems determined to show that that Truth is not - or perhaps should not be - shared by Jason and Peter's classmates. (The students describe confession, for example, as both a "sacrament of obsession" and a "poor man's therapy session.") These students are only really developed through their relationships to Peter and Jason: Jason's sister, Nadia, is introverted and worried about her looks; Ivy is pretty and popular, but desperately in love with Jason, and frequently unable to get her affections returned; and Matt is in love with Ivy, but can't get her to reciprocate. But these characters' connections to - or feelings about - Catholicism are never really explored.

This weakening of the Church's influence weakens Bare. There are times that Hartmere and Intrabartolo seem to suggest that Peter and Jason need less religion in their lives and the other students need more, but the Church is generally otherwise shown as monolithic and uncaring. (The exception is the mostly sympathetic Sister Chantelle, an otherwise minor character.) As both Peter and Jason begin with a strong faith in God, the lack of the Church's constant presence - as well as the establishment of the basis for their beliefs - further hurts the play's foundational conflict.

Director Kristin Hanggi is only moderately successful at finding solutions to these problems. Her staging is thoroughly musical, quick-paced and constantly in motion, and the show never feels mechanical. (Domonic Sack's sound design sometimes makes it sound that way, though.) But the choices she and choreographer Sergio Trujillo make in depicting Peter and Jason's inner conflictions, relying heavily on cross imagery and physical representations of them being pulled in many directions, have a clichéd feel not otherwise present in the well-staged Bare. Gallo's set, David C. Woolard's costumes, and Mike Baldassari's lights are all just right for the play.

There's a great deal to like in the score, which is integral in giving Bare its strong pulse. Hartmere and Intrabartolo render their characters in a rock vernacular that suggests Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, and their own unique, irreverent theatrical style. (The only fun they find in religious music, however, is in the gospel songs Sister Chantelle sings.) The lyrics are openly emotional, and tend to lack subtlety or insight, but the music, as played by the six-person band under Intrabartolo's musical direction, is almost consistently strong. (The show's most unsatisfying musical moments occur when Intrabartolo uneasily sets the verse of the school's play - Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - to music.)

As for the performances, Michael Arden gives a terrific, articulate vocal performance, and projects an easygoing youthful charm, while John Hill is almost ideally cast as the stereotypical golden boy dying inside. Jenna Leigh Green vibrantly and effortlessly negotiates Ivy's roller coaster of emotions, and Aaron Lohr does well by the easily hurt (and hurtful) Matt. Kaitlin Hopkins's appearances as Peter's loving but concerned mother are few but memorable, and it's difficult to imagine anyone making more of her character. Romelda T. Benjamin is a vocal knockout as Chantelle, but can't make her seem integral to the story, and Natalie Joy Johnson and Jim Price do as much as can be expected with their fairly one-note characters of Nadia and the Priest.

In many ways, Bare is admirable piece of work, sharing much in common with both Urinetown (which played in this same theater three years ago) and last year's Radiant Baby. Those two shows had very different fates, and it's difficult at this juncture to determine what Bare's future will be. Bare is so bursting with youthful vigor that, even acknowledging its problems, it's very difficult not to like and want to succeed, though one can't help but feel as if it still has a bit of growing up to do.

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Bare a Pop Opera
Through May 30
American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge