BWW Reviews: Theatre Out Stages Impressive OC Premiere of BARE - THE MUSICAL
Generally speaking, many of us---no matter what age we may be now---can attest without much hesitation that life in high school has the potential to be...well, a somewhat stressful, highly-emotional battleground to endure. And, gosh, on top of this already volatile roller-coaster of a life sits a nagging voice that constantly reminds you of the "importance" of your personal social standing.
Oh, no. What if your peers notice that you exude qualities that are slightly different from the so-called "norm" and are, perhaps, a bit peculiar and even---heaven forbid---uncool?
Forget it. You're screwed.
Well, okay, probably not. Maybe things have changed a bit for millennials, but it's still easy to generalize that, even today, teenagers can be quite a judgmental bunch (though if you listen to the talking heads yapping on the 24-hour news channels today, adults aren't so immune from this behavior either). In a way, what your friends and peers think about you seems to always be top-of-mind; hence even the most sophomoric comment can hurt just as much as a twisted knife to the gut (but with less blood-loss).
Thus, besides succumbing to daily peer pressure, mounting schoolwork, easily accessible drugs, on-and-off-line bullying, hormonal surges, and abiding by the rules of their home lives, teens also have to constantly keep themselves in check. The questions and self-doubt can quickly pile up...
Am I cool enough? Do I look okay? Are my clothes alright? Do people like me? Are they going to make fun of me? Will anyone accept the real me?
Yep. Insecurities can certainly get the best of us---and perhaps more so for people caught between adolescence and adulthood.
Such is the turmoil that shrouds BARE - THE MUSICAL---the angst-fueled, hyper-melodramatic "pop opera" written by Jon Hartmere Jr. and the late Damon Intrabartolo that first made its debut in Los Angeles back in 2000, followed by its first New York production in 2004. Still resonant more than a decade later, the teen-centric musical continues its Orange County, California premiere performances at Theatre Out---the OC's Gay and Lesbian theatre company---through February 15 at its new home in the heart of Santa Ana's Artists' Village.
Curiously, this flawed but still emotionally-stirring musical is enjoying a bit of a resurgent renaissance lately, a domino effect likely instigated by the recent heavily-revised 2012 off-Broadway production at New World Stages. Naturally, that production soon inspired several regional productions to pop up across the US, including last year's much-lauded Los Angeles production presented by glory-struck productions at the Hayworth Theatre.
I, for one, am happy the show is getting plenty of notice, particularly because, like its similarly angst-y spiritual cousin SPRING AWAKENING, the show gives young, budding musical theater talents a chance to shine in meaty, age-appropriate, vocally-challenging roles.
For this impressive OC debut production, Theatre Out co-founder David C. Carnevale---working with the original, pre-2012 version of the musical---directs a talented cast of 19 within the black box walls of the troupe's new, larger space (less than two blocks from its previous home that was also in Downtown Santa Ana). Though the venue is still appropriately intimate, the larger configuration not only allows for stadium-style seating but also provides a deeper canvas for the musical to unfold. As such, this close proximity between audience and actor certainly highlight this particular musical's raw, vulnerable edges.
Set inside the hallowed halls of St. Cecilia's Catholic Boarding School---populated, of course, with a typical cavalcade of high school students with discernible personalities---BARE focuses most of its spotlight on the secret gay relationship between the school's B.M.O.C. heartthrob Jason (newcomer Jared Grant) and sensitive altar boy Peter (the superb Morgan Reynolds), Jason's roommate/paramour. Though their love---and, frankly, youthful lust---rings true and exciting, their on-the-down-low "taboo" romance inside their religiously-ruled surroundings is not only affecting their other relationships with friends and family but is also bombarding them with turmoil and inner pain.
Slowly and inevitably as expected, the stress of the secret weighs heavily on them both---particularly for Peter who wants desperately to come out so that they can be happy and open about their love. But, Jason, on the other hand, is terrified of exposing the truth, remaining perfectly content on living the lie; so much so that he entertains an intense flirtation with their mutual friend Ivy (the exquisite Krystle Cruz), who is, surprise!, totes interested in Jason.
This upsets Peter even more. And Ivy and Jason's pairing also doesn't sit well with either Matt (Marcus S. Daniel), who pines longingly for Ivy, and the acerbic Nadia (Kelsie Piini), who is not only Jason's sister but also---ha ha---Ivy's dorm roommate. Yikes. Nadia isn't much of a fan of Ivy, lobbing constant hurtful insults about her alleged promiscuity directly to her face. But Ivy herself has her own hang-ups---she's preoccupied with her weight and being apparently the last picked at, well, everything.
All of this high school drama is juxtaposed against the school's own production of a seemingly musical-ized Romeo and Juliet---itself a tale of forbidden star-crossed love. The play within this play is supervised by sassy nun / drama instructor Sister Chantelle (the scene-stealing Natasha Reese) which finds Jason surprisingly cast as Romeo, Ivy as Juliet, Peter as Mercutio, Matt as Tybalt, and Nadia (natch) as the Nurse.
Got all that? Good.
Soon tempers flare and hearts are shattered even more when Matt discovers Peter and Jason's secret, even as Jason continues his tryst with Ivy. Jason---wracked with guilt and unable to cope with his torment---turns to other, unhealthy ways to numb his pain. Poor kids. Are they doomed to similar, tragic fates as the Shakespearean characters they portray in the school's musical?
Admirably executed, Theatre Out's exemplary production of BARE succeeds in wringing out the show's emotional impact, which is helped enormously by an ensemble that actually looks like the age of the characters they play---adding a welcome authenticity to the production. In addition, this smaller, more intimate production of the musical actually puts you into the thick of all this angst and tension, which can sometimes be uncomfortable---but in a good way. There's no hiding behind scrims and wings here... every teardrop, every angry outcry, every audible sigh... it's all out in the open.
Such exposed intensity certainly elevated this production, and the actors oozed it. Collectively, the cast coerces harmonious beauty out of the show's score. But, of course, the leads in the cast especially deserve kudos. As Nadia, Piini exuded more than just a petulant teen with body acceptance issues, while Daniel (who stepped in for Michael Noah Levine at last Saturday's evening performance) gives his portrait of Matt a quiet fervor. Playing the role of Ivy, it's really hard to look away from Cruz, whose beautiful, riveting solos (particularly "All Grown Up") are full of layered ferocity and pathos, highlighted by her lovely pop-tinged vocals.
Debbi Parrott who plays Peter's mom, Claire is believably fretful for his son's well-being. As the no-nunsense Sister Chantelle, Reese is so much fun to watch that you almost wish she had more stage time, particularly to provide relief from all the sadness and angst (her "911! Emergency" is a hoot, complete with scantily-clad angels). And while newcomer Grant seemed a bit green at first, eventually the first time actor's slight nervousness becomes endearing and only serves to enhance his character's anguished, inner turmoil.
But when all is said and done, BARE is essentially about Peter's journey and thankfully Reynolds does an outstanding job leading the pack. Blessed with good looks, a terrific Broadway-ready voice, and a palpable vulnerability, the actor elicits our sympathy, affection, and, eventually, cheers. You really want to see the guy succeed and be happy, and his portrayal ensures those emotions from the audience.
My only real gripe with the production is that the cast isn't on microphones, which is understandable in such a small theater. But in some instances---especially during rapid fire exchanges between characters, or when the actors speak with their backs to the audience (!), or whenever lyrics overlap one another fighting for attention---it's rather difficult to make out some of what they're trying to sing/say, not only as the actors fight for dominance amongst each other but also against the pre-recorded musical tracks playing out of the speakers. (It didn't help either that the patrons sitting behind me during the performance I saw decided to speak to each other in normal volumes rather than whisper during the production. Oy vey.)
Luckily for me, I'm quite familiar with the material; first timers can easily glean what's happening during musical numbers, but will still likely not hear all of the lyrical gems dispatched by the characters (particularly during the dizzying, exposition-heavy "You & I"). The quiet ballads, naturally, fare better hearing-wise---and they sound pretty.
If you haven't yet experienced a production of BARE, Theatre Out's sharp production is definitely worth checking out.
For more photos of the production, click HERE.
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Performances of BARE - THE MUSICAL continue at Theatre Out through February 15, 2014. Tickets for BARE: THE MUSICAL are $20 general admission and can be purchased at www.theatreout.com or at the Box Office on the night of the performance. All performances are at Theatre Out's new venue at 402 W. 4th Street in Santa Ana (next door to Bistro 400).
For more information, visit Theatre Out at www.theatreout.com.