Catholic school is hardly the most welcoming environment for two teenage boys to fall in love, or so roommates Peter and Jason discover in Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s off-Broadway cult favorite bare: a pop opera, now being given a particularly powerful Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center debut under Fred Helsel’s inspired direction.
Times may have changed since bare had its 2000 World Premiere at Hollywood’s Hudson Mainstage Theater, but even now, fourteen years later, high schoolers like Peter and Jason may well find that it hasn’t “gotten better” yet, especially when one of them is deeply conflicted about his sexuality.
Peter (Julian Comeau) and Jason (Andrew Allen) have, in the years since their first meeting at St. Cecelia’s Boarding School, 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 (Heather Dudenbostel)—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 (Hunter Larsen) 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 (Tyler Vess) feels for Ivy, and the bitter resentment that Jason’s low self-esteem-plagued sister Nadia (Julia Williams) 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 (Michael Heimos) who uses Catholic doctrine to advise Peter (and perhaps to repress his own same-sex longings), and a sassy black nun named Sister Chantelle (Brittney S. Wheeler) 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.)
Rather than go the rock concert route, director Helsel has opted for for a more literal setting, resulting in a production which places equal emphasis on storytelling as on song and dance. Seth Kamenow’s production design makes it clear with its word and image projections exactly where we are at any time, whether at mass in St Cecilia’s Boarding School chapel, or in Peter and Jason’s dorm room, or at late-night rave, or in a school rehearsal room.
A particularly brilliant directorial touch is setting bare’s final scene on graduation day with St. Cecelia students outfitted for the ceremony, making for as heartwrenching a climax as any production of bare is likely to feature.
Despite this “straight play” approach, Intrabartolo’s melodies and Hartmere’s lyrics aren’t shortchanged in the least. Musical director Gary Poirot conducts and plays keyboard in the production’s excellent live band,* instrumental accompaniment expertly mixed with amped vocals by sound designer Chris Grote to give Simi Valley’s bare precisely the pop sound it deserves without sacrificing the audience’s ability to understand song lyrics.
And though this bare isn’t quite as dancy as the show can be, choreographer Keenon Hooks’ production numbers are excitingly staged and performed, particularly Act One’s “Epiphany,” the rave’s “Rolling,” and Romeo And Juliet’s “Pilgrim’s Hands,” the latter featuring an exquisite same-sex pas de deux.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect match of actor and character than Comeau as Peter, the Spring Awakening/Spamalot vet’s choir boy good looks, angelic voice, and heartfelt acting making it seem that the young man we’re seeing onstage is Peter himself brought to life rather than simply a standout performance.
Sharing top vocal/acting honors is Larsen, her Ivy’s tough exterior revealing layers of pain and self-doubt, and when this young lady sings, you’d think you were listening to a Top Ten finalist on American Idol or The Voice, she’s that gifted.
Simi Valley favorite Allen adds Jason to his remarkably varied résumé of roles ranging from Plaid Tidings’ nerdy Smudge to Damn Yankee’s spunky Joe Hardy to Pippin’s full-of-himself Lewis, and though Jason may have “school idol” in common with Hairpray’s Link Larkin (another fine Allen performance), the AMDA, LA grad isn’t afraid to reveal Jason’s less sympathetic aspects. (The guy can be more than a bit of a jerk, after all.)
Williams does excellent work as Nadia, her angry, bitter “Plain Jane Fat Ass” in terrific contrast to her introspective “A Quiet Night Alone.” As for Matt, the charismatic Vess takes a character that could easily become the villain of the piece and makes your heart ache for him, in addition to the topnotch pipes he reveals in “Are You There?”
Heimos’s fine work as Priest illustrates the hypocrisy of the oft-quoted adage to “Love the sinner,” while Dudenbostel makes the very most of Claire’s two brief scenes, in particular a powerfully sung “Warning.”
Last but not least is the sensational Wheeler, making Sister Chantelle entirely her own creation, and a scene-stealing one at that, whether doing her best Diana Ross in “911! Emergency!” or gay antheming in “God Don’t Make No Trash.”
Among the student body, “Angels” Mazie Wilson and Sarah Maher and rapper Lucas (Rehyan Rivera) are given the greatest chance to stand out, along with Kaitlyn Fajilan’s delightfully nerdy cameo as Diane.
Ensemble students Colette Berube (Bridgette), Diego Bobadilla (Estuardo), Justin James (Zack), Rondell MacGarvey (Alan), Amanda Meade-Tatum (Jessica), and Amanda Newman (Rory) are given less to do and therefore have less chance to create fleshed-out characters, but what they are given, they do very well indeed, in addition to being quite credible as high school-aged students.
In addition to Kamenow’s production design, for the most part effectively lit by Jackson Miller, bare at Simi Valley benefits enormously from Randon Pool’s eclectic costumes, from school uniforms (a big thumbs up for having students individualize their outfits with trendy shoes, etc.), dream sequence wear, Romeo And Juliet period garb, and choir/graduation robes.
bare: a pop opera is produced by Helsel and David Ralphe. Rivera is assistant choreographer and Maher dance captain.
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center deserves a rousing round of applause for opening 2014 with as edgy a programming choice as bare: a pop opera, and an added ovation for doing it so well. Only the most intolerant of theatergoers will fail to be moved to tears and cheers by this splendid production.
Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
January 19, 2014
Photos: Melissa Miller
*Cavit Celayir-Moneizis (keyboard), Art Gibson (bass), Gabe Gonzales (guitar), Kevin Hart (bass) Chris McCarty (cello), Lucas Miller (drums), Andy Moressi (guitar), and Jodi Morse (flute)