By any rational accounting, this shouldn’t be possible. If anything is going to plunge forward with the velocity of a rocket straining to break Earth’s orbit, it’s going to be a pop-fueled romance that looks at youthful dalliances (yes, including sex) and their searing consequences through a lens of guitar-heavy songs, while tackling major taboos along the way (in this case: the intersection of homosexuality and the Catholic church). Yet both this musical and the production it’s received, which has been choreographed by Travis Wall and directed by Stafford Arima, struggle to keep themselves upright.
Maybe it’s because we’ve seen this type of musical before, and recently — Spring Awakening, anyone? Maybe it’s because society’s and the law’s ever-softening stance on gay marriage and, for that matter, existence, have made a whisper of what not long ago was a rallying cry. Or maybe it’s because this mongrel of a show has been making the rounds so long that it’s lost all sight of what it’s supposed to be and how it’s supposed to work. (That last one’s my choice, but we’ll get to it presently.)
The central conflict here is between nerdy Peter (Taylor Trensch) and jocky Jason (Jason Hite), who’ve fallen in love at St. Cecelia’s boarding school, but can’t take it public. The priest-principal (Jerold E. Solomon) is a dogmatic doctrinaire type, and thus not especially willing to encourage the boys. One teacher, Sister Joan (Missi Pyle), is relatively cool — she teaches contraception during drama class, you see — but she’s still too out of the picture. As for their friends, they’re mostly angry or bigoted types, whether Jason’s bitter sister Nadia (Barrett Wilbert Weed), the other members of Jason’s basketball team, or Matt (Gerard Canonico), the theatre guy who’s longing for the lead in Romeo and Juliet so he can play opposite his dream girl, and the salacious star of most of the worst rumors around, Ivy (Elizabeth Judd).
With his book, Hartmere attempts to draw parallels between the school play and the nasty machinations of the students — with, of course, Peter and Jason the star-crossed (and, yes, ill-fated) duo of note. And, technically, the scenes that explore how the kids relate to and are affected by art, whether Shakespeare or photography, are among the most interesting because they at least acknowledge a slightly wider world than the one they’re clawing against.
But at its center, this is essentially an empty antireligious screed. This can work if there’s genuine wit involved (as in Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You); it’s often even better if the authors are actually interested in exploring more than one side (the current Broadway megahit The Book of Mormon). Here, the priest is merely callous and corrupt, Mary sets no example except to be used as the leader of a girl group–style quartet in an extraneous fantasy sequence, and the church is so hopeless and useless in the students’ lives that they do nothing more than shoot up, get plastered, and sleep around every chance they get.
This, alas, is incapacitatingly boring. Because Peter and Jason don’t have a real, dangerous adversary — they’re fighting against a shadowy evil that they scarcely acknowledge, and that they’ve demonstrated has no significant impact on their lives — the action becomes about young people squabbling with other young people over hallway trivialities. This is mighty tough to watch for two and a half hours, even with Intrabartolo’s overloud music set to slow throb. The few plot twists that exist might have been daring as late as 30 years ago, but now signal the evening as a singing, dancing, annoying anachronism.
Solomon and Pyle have thankless tasks as the sinner and saint respectively, but acquit themselves well enough. The strongest performance comes from Canonico, who works devilishly hard to bring color and dimension to the adolescent villain of the piece, and does more than the writers have to demonstrate through Matt’s actions that there are no easy decisions — whether good or bad. More of that sort of shading would help throughout.
The biggest issue, however, is that unnecessary sedateness that makes Bare such a question mark — now. When it opened Off-Broadway in 2004, it was styled as a pop opera, with all the additional singing, danger, and excess that appellation implied. Still, its forceful, assertive presentation and muscular-voiced cast (including, as Peter, now–theatre favorite Michael Arden) counted for a lot — and made a flat tolerance tutorial into a party. There’s been extensive rewriting in the intervening years, with much of the music has been replaced with scenes, but nothing, from the hackneyed plot to the upturned-nose attitude toward religion, has improved. Overall, things are even worse: Without the constant, driving backbeat propelling it forward, the show always seems either embarrassed of itself or ready for naptime.
Ultimately, the effect is practically identical to that of the Off-Broadway revival of Carrie from earlier this year: What was stylized, distinct, and special — if not necessarily good — has been mushed and molded into something that not only doesn’t take chances, but behaves like it doesn’t want to. Carrie, however, has always had compelling characters and a few outstanding songs. The original Bare thrived exclusively on being different, an asset that’s become a liability now that the show is anything but.