Orange County’s premier LGBT theater, Theatre Out, opens its first complete season in its spiffy new 4th Street Artist Village space (appropriately just down the block from trendy Santa Ana gay club Velvet Lounge) with a powerfully staged OC Premiere production of Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s bare.
Times may have changed since bare: A Pop Opera had its 2000 World Premiere at Hollywood’s Hudson Mainstage Theater, but even now, fourteen years later, a Catholic high school remains hardly the most welcoming environment for two boys in love, especially when one of them is deeply conflicted about his sexuality.
Longtime boarding school roommates Peter (Morgan Reynolds) and Jason (Jared Grant) have, in the years since their first meeting, gone from best friends to secret boyfriends, and though each of them has up till now been content with the status quo, Peter is beginning to tire of “spending days in silent fear and spending nights in lonely prayer.” Perhaps the time has come to put an end to this “Best Kept Secret” and let his mother Claire (Debbi Parrott)—and the rest of the world—know the truth about who he is and who he loves.
Much of bare takes place during rehearsals for the St. Cecilia High production of Romeo And Juliet, with class nerd Peter as Mercutio, popular jock Jason as Romeo, and school bad girl Ivy (Krystle Cruz) as Juliet. That Ivy has feelings for Jason paralleling Juliet’s for Romeo makes for quite a love triangle, particularly when Jason feels tempted to dip his toes into heterosexual waters with his lovestruck costar.
Further complicating this already highly combustible mix is the unrequited love that classmate Matt (Michael Noah Levine) feels for Ivy, and the bitter resentment that Jason’s low self-esteem-plagued sister Nadia (Kelsey Piini) harbors for the slimmer, more popular Ivy.
With a mother who doesn’t want to hear a truth she’s already figured out on her own, a priest (Kevin L. Cordova) who uses Catholic doctrine to advise Peter (and perhaps to repress his own same-sex longings), and a sassy black nun named Sister Chantelle (Natasha Reese) who already has enough on her plate directing Romeo And Juliet to worry about anything else, it seems hardly likely that boy and boy can fare any better than boy and girl did in the hostile world that surrounded Romeo and Juliet.
Though you can hear echoes of Jonathan Larson’s Rent in bare’s eclectic score, Intrabartolo’s melodies have their own catchy, often deeply-affecting appeal, making the gifted musical theater talent’s death last year at a mere thirty-nine all the more heartbreaking. Hartmere’s lyrics provide a perfect complement to Intrabartolo’s tunes in addition to advancing the plot of this mostly sung-through musical. (There’s just enough dialog in Intrabartolo and Hartmere’s book to make bare a good deal easier to follow on initial viewing than Rent.)
From bare’s very first scene, director David C. Carnevale and choreographer Marcus S. Daniel establish a distinctive vision and tone, Daniel’s electric dance steps merging with the pulsating beat of Itrabartolo’s “Epiphany” as Carnevale intersperses scenes of a bullied Peter with a brief but powerful flash-forward to bare’s deeply emotional finale.
Director and choreographer benefit enormously from a cast of young OC triple-threats who actually look like they could be students in a real-life Catholic boarding school, the production’s racially diverse casting (Ivy is Asian-American for example) another major plus.
Theatre Out lucked out big-time in securing the talents of Reynolds as Peter, a role the charismatic Best Featured Actor Scenie winner invests with a just-right blend of fragility, charm, and pluck … and vocals that make every Peter song (“Role Of A Lifetime” in particular) a standout.
Tall, dark, and handsome Grant makes for a Jason any Peter could easily fall head over heels for, has great chemistry with Reynolds, and harmonizes to powerful effect with his costar in “You & I,” “Best Kept Secret,” and “Bare.”
Cast standout Piini couldn’t be more heartbreakingly real as the rage-filled Nadia, whether belting out a self-depricating “Plain Jane Fat Ass” or getting quietly introspective in “A Quiet Night At Home.”
Cruz (of CW’s The Next fame) is very good indeed as the tough yet secretly vulnerable Ivy, “All Grown Up” showing off her power pipes to particular advantage. Levine gives Matt real poignancy, in addition to duetting “Are You There?” with Reynolds to memorable effect. Reese makes for a terrific Sister Chantelle, stopping the show with her soulful, sassy “911! Emergency” and “God Don’t Make No Trash.” Parrott’s Claire shines too, whether refusing to allow her son to come out to her in “See Me” or revealing a mother’s heartbreak in “Warning.” Cordova has effective moments too as a Priest with his own inner demons to battle.
Director Carnevale has clearly encouraged bare’s talented young ensemble to go beyond creating mere cardboard characters. Kudos to dance captain Hannah Clair (Tanya), Laura De Lano (Judith), Michael Gallardo (Jake), Scott Leslie (Anthony), Gabrielle Maldonado (Thalia), Tina Nguyen (Diane), Kevin Norman (Alan), Luis Ochoa (Lucas), Julian Ronquillo (Zach), Jocelyn Sanchez (Rory), and Jenáe Thompson (Kyra) for delivering the goods across the board.
(With such a large ensemble, it’s a shame that program bios are not accompanied by headshots to let the audience know just who is who.)
In addition to the previously mentioned “Epiphany,” bare’s “Wonderland” rave sequence stands out as another Daniels choreographic showcase, as does the rocking “911! Emergency!” with its scantily clad backup angels of both female and male persuasion. Daniels has also come up with some beautiful balletic moves to back up Jason and Peter’s same-sex R&J duet “Pilgrim’s Hands.” On a less positive note, an intrusive pas de deux destroys the intimacy of Peter and Jason’s gut-wrenching “Bare,” though dancers Clair and Gallardo do give the by-itself lovely dance sequence their all.
Musical director Sarah Weinzetl and associate musical director Maldonado elicit some topnotch vocals from bare’s talented young cast, who perform unmiked to prerecorded tracks. Still, truth be told, this is one instance where amplified voices would do greater justice to a show’s musical score, particularly one as pulsating as bare’s. Unamped, only the strongest vocals have quite enough volume to fill Theatre Out’s new space and end up necessitating lower-decibel instrumental backup than Itrabartolo’s electric guitar-heavy soundtrack deserves.
Carnevale’s set design is simple but highly effective, a bare black box with an upstage cross made up of a collage of St. Cecilia student/faculty pix, with left-and-right-side risers allowing for some particularly effective multi-level blocking. Costume designer Carnevale gets top marks for St. Cecilia’s form-fitting uniforms, some sexy go-go boy short shorts, Romeo And Juliet garb, and more. Joy Chessmar-Bice’s okay lighting design could gain added impact and pizzazz by employing a greater variety of effects. Mary Chessmar-Bice is lighting assistant.
EB Bohks is stage manager and Joey Baital and Alexis Stansfield are assistant stage managers.
With its upcoming productions of The Dying Gaul, Corpus Christi, The Drowsy Chaperone, Beirut, Sordid Lives, and Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart, Theatre Out’s 2014 season looks to be an exciting one indeed. If bare is any indication of what’s to come, it’s going to be quite a year ahead.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
January 10. 2014
Photos: Stephen Rack