BWW Review: An Emotionally Charged BARE

L-R: Alanna Lovely, Anastasia Arnold, Cassie Nelson, Natalie Savoy, JoNathan Parker Jackson, Lewis Rawlinson, Connor David Giles, Gina Francesca, Molly Coleman, Jacob Fjare, Ryan Armstrong. Photo by Laura Leigh Smith

Religious dogma and the young love clash on a Shakespearean level in Refuge Theatre Project's production of BARE: A POP OPERA.

Peter (Lewis Rawlinson) and Jason (Christopher Ratliff) share both a room and a bed at a Catholic boarding school. Peter, a shy and sensitive soul, longs to come up publically. Jason is the school's star athlete and a bit of a realist. He has seen how his parents have become dismissive of his fraternal twin sister Nadia (Gina Francesca) for having a weight problem and not living up to the family's ideals.

Nadia, meanwhile, has feelings for Matt (Ryan Armstrong). Unfortunately, Matt only has eyes for Ivy (Molly Coleman). Nadia shares a room with Ivy are resents her for being all the things that she is not. Before the final note is sung, the various triangles will come undone. It is an opera, after all.

In an age when gay marriage is legal, some will certainly question the cultural significance of producing a show about two closeted teens who share a forbidden romance at a Catholic boarding school. Sadly, the topic remains relevant. Despite the perception of acceptance, there still is undoubtedly religious and societal pressure to be something other than queer. It's a point made abundantly clear by LGBTQ suicide rates and the fact that Refuge is raising funds at every performance for Project Fierce Chicago, an organization that serves homeless LGBTQ youth.

Fortunately, the show also has some top-notch performances by a mostly-unknown cast. As the show's lead, Rawlinson's performance as the emotionally torn Peter is a powerhouse. He shows great emotional range while tackling the show's pop score.

Ratliff is also a terrific actor and singer, but his Jason doesn't seem to come into his own until the second act. Part of this is because of his character's arc in the book by Jon Hartmere and the late Damon Intrabartolo. In the first act, Jason comes off as a bit of a self-centered schmuck. Ratliff needs to convey a larger sense of how conflicted Jason is, otherwise he loses the audience as our sympathies are completely with Peter. Ratliff ignites things in the second act tear-jerker "Once Upon a Time," but the entire piece might be better served if his Jason wasn't so dismissive of Jason's feelings in the first act.

Coleman's Ivy is the party girl that everyone loves for most the first act. As written, it also is a bit one-notE. Coleman layers it with a sense of vulnerability. Her performance of "All Grown Up" in the second act, in which the veneer of her popularity is stripped away to reveal her vulnerability, is riveting.

As Nadia, the relatively new-comer Gina Francesca is quite the discovery. Her performance of "Plain Jane Far Ass," in which Nadia wholly embraces what everyone is saying about her as a sort of defense mechanism, hits all the right comedic points and would be reason enough to see this production. She also shows considerable depth in a later song, "A Quiet Night at Home," though. Left alone again on a Friday night, Nadia's defensive sarcasm melts away, and Francesca excels in conveying both the loneliness of her character in a moving portrayal.

The biggest quibble I have with this production is the decision to stage the mostly sung-through show in an actual church. On the one hand, it gives an immediate honesty to the proceedings. The ensemble numbers -including "Epiphany" and "No Voice" are essentially choir hymns and the wall of sound produced by the ensemble is gorgeous.

Still, despite what some would call an inherent theatricality to most religious proceedings, churches make lousy places to stage shows. Director Matt Dominguez has blocked one powerful, crucial scene on the left and right rows of the pews. The end result has you careening your neck back and forth like a tennis match. He is far more successful with blocking scenes front and center (Ratliff's previously mentioned performance of "Once Upon a Time" makes particularly good use of the space, though).

Lighting designer Cody Ryan had the insurmountable task of placing theatrical lighting into the space. Ryan was far more successful in this endeavor in the second act. The first act had several moments of actors singing alone in the dark or -worse- crammed into a huddle of a lone spotlight on them.

Fans of the score will be slightly disappointed on the group's decision to rely on keyboards (played masterfully by Michael Evans) for the bulk of the sound. I found myself missing the acoustic guitar that is prevalent in the original recordings and heard in previous productions.

Featuring some top-notch performances by some relative new-comers to the Chicago stage in a tale where spirituality, sexuality and identity clash, BARE still manages to deliver an emotional wallop despite these minor flaws.

Refuge Theatre Project's production of BARE: A POP OPERA runs through Nov. 6 at the Epworth United Methodist Church, 5253 N. Kenmore. Tickets $25.

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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