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Michael Arden in bare
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
I don't usually cry at musicals, but Bare is an exception. The show teeters on becoming overly melodramatic, mixing in nearly every conceivable issue that could cause teenage angst: homosexuality, drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and so on. However, rather than this being an issue-driven piece, co-creators Jon Hartmere, Jr. (book and lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (book and music) have fashioned a character-driven narrative that is both moving and effective.

Set in a Catholic boarding school, the show centers on a group of friends during their senior year. Altar boy Peter (Michael Arden) is in love with his roommate Jason (John Hill), one of the most popular kids in school. They are carrying on a closeted romance but Peter wants to go public with their affair, at least to his mother (Kaitlin Hopkins), whom he loves dearly. Jason isn't so keen on the idea, as he feels that his entire world would crumble if word of the relationship got out. Things get more complicated when Ivy (Jenna Leigh Green) makes a play for Jason. Her rejected suitor Matt (Aaron Lohr) discovers the secret that Peter and Jason have been keeping and it's only a matter of time before things start to spin out of control.

The students are mounting a production of Romeo and Juliet under the guidance of Sister Chantelle (Romelda T. Benjamin). Jason and Ivy are cast as the leads, with Peter as Mercutio and Matt as Tybalt. Not only are there parallels to the characters' offstage interactions but the theme of forbidden romance is, of course, central to both the Shakespeare play and to Bare. In a love duet between Jason and Peter, there's even a nod to the most famous musical treatment of Romeo and Juliet. "I know this world can have a place for us," sings Jason in an only slightly rephrased lyric from West Side Story. With so many allusions to Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy, it's almost inevitable that things will end badly for some, if not all, of the characters.

Bare is described as a "pop opera" and it's true that it owes much more to a kind of 1980s pop sound mixed with a little bit of grunge than to either hard driving rock-and-roll or traditional musical theater tunes. But, lest the word "pop" scare anyone away, rest assured that the score is much more than bubblegum confectionary. Interwoven with several of the melodies are influences of sacred music in the form of hymns and a modified Gregorian chant. There are also a couple of Motown-inspired numbers that are quite hilarious and lend a bit of soul to the proceedings.

Hartmere's lyrics successfully convey character and emotion. In one of the more touching songs, Peter sings to his lover, whom he appears to be losing, "We climbed an escape grown from seeds that you planted / You slew all my giants ignoring your own / And now that they haunt you / I'm left with my courage, alone." The words nicely encapsulate Peter's feelings of love and betrayal, strength and loneliness. Arden is blessed with a gorgeous voice and is able to channel his emotions through it, oftentimes to devastating effect.

Jenna Leigh Green and John Hill in bare
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The rest of the cast also impresses. Hill is riveting in a dramatic scene set in a confessional booth, while Green presents a mixture of bravado and insecurity that gives her character depth. Hopkins was the first to draw tears from my eyes in her second act solo, "Warning." Natalie Joy Johnson also makes an impact as Jason's sister and Ivy's roommate, Nadia. While her voice is a bit thin, she possesses a solid presence and demonstrates an emotional connection to the material that makes numbers like her solo "A Quiet Night at Home" poignant.

Sergio Trujillo's choreography does not always serve the show. For instance, he incorporates way too many images of crucifixion in the first number; subtlety is thrown out the window as Peter is maneuvered into the position of Jesus hanging on the cross at least three different times in close succession. Thankfully, the rest of the production -- smoothly directed by Kristin Hanggi -- is not quite so heavy-handed.

While Bare is unquestionably irreverent and critical of certain aspects of the Catholic Church's dogma, it is never dismissive of religion. Instead, it demonstrates how the Church is a source of immense pain and confusion for these troubled teens while remaining a place of refuge and spirituality. Although the characters may lose their way as they navigate life's thorny path, they hold onto their faith, and the closing moments of the show resonate with hope amidst tragedy.

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