Have you ever wanted to rip out your beating heart and hold it up for everyone to see while belting a high F into the face of your secret lover? Not since high school? Well then the angst-ridden nature of composer Damon Intrabartolo and author/lyricist Jon Hartmere's Bare, now playing at New World Stages, is perfectly understandable. The teenage pain and alienation packed into this two-and-a-half-hour musical is true to form and, for the most part, feels authentic.
The show takes place in a fancy Catholic boarding school run by the doctrinaire Father Mike (Jerold E. Solomon) and drama-teaching progressive nun, Sister Joan (Missi Pyle). Jason (Jason Hite) and Peter (Taylor Trensch) are in love, but Jason is a big closet-case jock, so it's a secret. Emo puppy dog Matt (Gerard Canonico) is in love with the new girl Ivy (Elizabeth Judd), but she has the hots for Jason (guuurl, don't even go there). Everyone is on loads of pilfered prescription drugs thanks to Jason's angry outcast sister/drug dealer Nadia (Barrett Wilbert Weed), who also happens to have feelings for Matt. Got all of that?
As a lounge-singing Virgin Mary (also played by the delightfully funny Missi Pyle) sighs in the first act, "….high school. Okay." And, far from a pop-infused pep rally, in this high school musical, we're all in this alone. Yet all of the drama generated by this seemingly inconsequential love pentagon—and particularly how the alleged adults in the room respond to it—has real consequences. In an age when high school jocks regularly come out of the closet and same-sex couples are named to the homecoming court, we'd like to think that the pressure of being a gay teen isn't terrible enough to merit an Off-Broadway musical anymore; but we would be wrong. The issues addressed in Bare are very real and handled adroitly by an expert cast.
Trensch plays Peter as affably awkward. Even through his deadpan line deliveries, one can sense the constant disappointment he feels from being publicly rejected (but privately embraced) by Jason. Lesson: never date a closet case. As Nadia, Barrett Wilbert Weed gives voice to that weird girl in high school that no one talked to unless they were buying drugs…and what an earth-shatteringly powerful voice it is. Hite deftly navigates the difficult role of Jason, garnering sympathy for a character that could easily be hated by the audience for all of his dickishness to Peter.
And for all of the teen drama, the show is surprisingly funny in the first act. Alice Lee steals a lot of laughs as the ditsy Diane. She and Trensch are a riot in their duet "Best Friend," in which Diane can't figure out that Jason and Peter are doing it no matter how clearly Peter, quite literally, spells it out. Contributing to the levity, Sister Joan proves to be a rather sassy nun, dishing out one-liners like, "I'll thank you to keep your ignorance as hidden as the bra you don't seem to be wearing."
Hartmere has crafted a witty and sharp script to go along with Intrabartolo's energetic rock score. Donyale Werle's versatile and beautiful set (nearly every inch is covered in photographs) allows for smooth and seamless transitions and a steady pace of action. Director Stafford Arima takes advantage of that, keeping the show rolling and the audience engaged.
By the middle of the second act, however, the angst, intensified by the dramaturgical need to tie up emotional loose ends, becomes a bit draining. In a line that seems squarely directed at Dan Savage, Matt sings, "They said things would get better, but I guess they lied;" and it is impossible to not feel helpless in the face of such unrelenting despair. Be forewarned: this musical is beautifully designed, well sung and acted, but it's also a major downer. The whole affair left me deeply impressed by the actors' endurance and incredibly grateful that I am no longer sixteen.