Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s bare: a pop opera at long last gets its San Diego Premiere—and an absolutely superb one at Diversionary Theater—fourteen years after it first impacted Los Angeles theatergoers with its devastatingly powerful take on two Catholic High School boys in love.
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 bare protagonists Peter and Jason may well find that it hasn’t “gotten better” yet, especially when one of them is deeply conflicted about his sexuality.
The two boys (Dylan Mulvaney as Peter and Charlie Gange as Jason) have, you see, gone from best friends to secret boyfriends in the years since their first meeting at St. Cecelia’s Boarding School, 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 (Rae K. Hendersen)—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 shy boy Peter as Mercutio, popular jock Jason as Romeo, and school bad girl Ivy (Katie Sapper) 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 (Mitchell Connelly) feels for Ivy, and the bitter resentment that Jason’s low self-esteem-plagued sister Nadia (Samantha Vesco) 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 (Charles W. Patmon, Jr.) who uses Catholic doctrine to condemn, and a sassy black nun named Sister Chantelle (Kiani Nelson) 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.)
Noah Longton’s direction is as inspired as it gets, the Diversionary favorite not only making imaginative visual use of a problematically-shaped stage, but inspiring his cast to give rich, three-dimensional performances. In addition, Longton scores bonus points for mastering bare’s most difficult sequence, one which has one of its lead characters making a life-altering decision, a key moment that has baffled previous bare directors.
Longton’s spot-on casting shares credit for this bare’s impact and depth; more than any other bare I’ve reviews, the Diversionary stage is filled with honest-to-goodness high schoolers (or kids so recently out of high school that they might as well be), thereby adding to the production’s believability and power.
Mulvaney and Gange are the most credible Peter and Jason I’ve had the pleasure to see, both as individual characters and as Peter&Jason the couple. Mulvaney’s Chris Colfer-like delicacy makes Peter’s journey from self-doubting teen to confident young man all the more powerful, and his vocals are quite gorgeous. As for Gange, I haven’t witnessed a more superbly acted Jason, the San Diego native’s deeply-felt work portending great things ahead. Simply put, expect to have your heart broken by this pair of young actors on the rise.
I loved Sapper’s girl-next-door-with-an-edge take on Ivy, Vesco’s achingly real Nadia, and Connelly’s besotted nerd of a Matt, and each gets to show off terrific pipes, Sapper in “Portrait Of A Girl” and “All Grown Up,” Vesco in “Plain Jane Fatass” and “A Quiet Night Alone,” and Connelly in “Are You There?”
As for supporting-cast teens, Longton’s cast has clearly fleshed out each character’s back story, special snaps going to Martin Ortiz’ edgy, drug-dealing rapper Lucas, with Chris Bona (Zack), Samantha Wynn Greenstone I (Rory), Nadia Guevara (Tanya), Gabi Leibowitz (Diane), Christopher Ruetten (Alan), and assistant choreographer Alexandra Slade (Kyra) all doing topnotch work.
Among the adults, Nelson gives Sister Chantelle plenty of sass and sky-high vocal excitement and Hendersen’s wry take on Claire is another winner, with bonus points for a powerfully sung “Warning.” Patmon’s Priest possesses powerful vocal chops, but the actor’s line readings come across mechanical and under-rehearsed.
Though not a dancy show per se, choreographer Michael Mizerany makes the very most of bare’s ensemble numbers, opening with an exciting, dramatic “Epiphany,” followed by a sexy “Wonderland” rave sequence, a revival meeting-esque “Wedding Bells,” and some fabulous Dreamgirls-ready moves for “911! Emergency.”
Director Longton and musical director Tony Houck have made the key decision to mike each performer, giving Diversionary’s bare just the right rock sound, this being one musical that should probably never ever be done “unplugged,” and Houck (on keyboards) and his upstairs band (Kevin Jones on guitar, Isaac Crow on bass, and Charlie Weller on drums) more than deliver the goods. Kudos too to sound designer Kevin Anthenill for some expert sound mixing and to sound engineer Jose Gonzales.
Scenic designer Michael Von Hoffman’s ingenious set morphs mostly smoothly from locale to locale, 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. (Scenic artist Ashley Von Hoffman’s stained glass windows are a particularly great touch.) Patty Fay’s costumes, from school uniforms to rave wear, are terrific too, as is Luke Olson’s vibrant lighting design. (Garrett Bazzle is assistant to the costume designer.)
Rebecca Noland is assistant director. Mark S. Butterfuss is stage manager.
I have rarely seen a cast as emotionally drained at curtain calls as the cast of Diversionary’s bare, and with good reason. The emotional rollercoaster ride on which they have just taken the audience has clearly impacted them, just as it will surely impact anyone who makes the smart decision to catch bare: a pop opera’s San Diego debut.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.
July 20, 2014
Photos: Kaleb Scott