Review: PJMA Theater Productions Launches Its First Show with BARE: A POP OPERA

By: Sep. 08, 2018
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Review: PJMA Theater Productions Launches Its First Show with BARE: A POP OPERA

It is always an exciting time when a new semi-professional theatre company rears its head in our community and decides to open their first show of their first season with a gutsy, underdone play or musical. In some ways, the first work is a veritable flag in the sand that proclaims, "This is who we are!" This is the case with PJMA Theater Productions. According to their website, they are "committed to choosing scripts and creating theatre performances that not only entertain you, but inspire you, our audience, to start a conversation." And their first production out of the gate is the cult hit, BARE: A POP OPERA, at the Carrollwood Players Theatre. As their stage manager, Natasha Alexander, mentioned on their Facebook page: "Doing a show like [BARE] is so important because it shows the struggles the LGBT community faces on a daily basis. The audience should feel pain, laughter and love. Come in with an open mind and heart."

BARE has been around since almost the turn of this century, but with its teen angst themes and the sexual struggles of its character, it comes across as a sort of low rent Spring Awakening (even though its first incarnations preceded the musical version of Spring Awakening). In a way it's like a pop-rock version of Southern Baptist Sissies meets Altar Boyz. The struggles of the two leads, Jason and Peter, homosexual lovers and seniors in a co-ed Catholic boarding school, makes for an eye-opening experience that you will not soon forget even if you try.

It deals with an incredibly important story for people struggling with their sexuality, and although I would like to report that it's a brilliant production, and that PJMA's first horse out of the theatrical gates is a winner, I cannot. There are so many issues with the production--vocals, acting, staging, and especially pacing--that I expected more from a semi-professional group. I don't want to rain on their parade, and I admire that they have started an exciting company that wants to do edgy, provocative work, but this is not my favorite show.

I do admire PJMA's "the show must go on" credo that occurred on the opening night of BARE when the light board at the Carrollwood Players zonked out in mid-song and the rest of the show had to be illuminated solely by spotlights. I respected the director's decision to make sure the performance goes on for the paying customers, no matter what. Yes, it was like Noises Off come to life with so many technical glitches (the microphones were also schizophrenic), but the actors kept on going and didn't let these technical flubs stop the performance. I know it was not the visual look that the director wanted (what actually occurred is a director's nightmare), and it's an obvious letdown for the cast and crew when tech disasters almost derail a show. But it was a brave choice to carry on, and I was on their side for it. (I'm sure that the lighting issues will be fixed for future performances where you can see the glorious colors and shadows that the director intended.)

Still, my issues with the show go way beyond the technical aspects. First, with the exception of a select few songs ("Quiet Night at Home," "Role of a Lifetime," "All Grown Up"), Jon Hartmere's lyrics and Damon Intrabartolo's music just aren't very memorable. They have a certain flatlined sameness about them. Also, so many songs are beyond the singers' various vocal ranges, where the actors sometimes end up almost shrieking at the audience. There are occasional nice harmonies, but oftentimes the cast of fourteen sounds like friends getting together for a drunken campfire singalong.

There are certainly standouts. Richard Cubi is strong as Peter, the gay teen who wants to come out to the world. His voice is clear and crisp, and we understand the character's struggle. Drew Eberhard as Jason, the sexually torn teen in the mix, has a wonderful voice as well, and we could certainly hear his vocals over the rest of the cast. His acting choices, however, are sometimes questionable (he always seems to be posing and pouting). I wonder if the show wouldn't have been stronger or more believable if Cubi and Eberhard had actually switched roles. But both actors, onstage constantly, admirably carry the weight of the production on their shoulders.

Athena Tootie Jolee Romanski gets my vote for the best in the cast. As Tanya, she's always in character, always alive onstage, and her voice is quite good. Deborah Devora does well in the smaller role of Diane, and Skylar Rosenthal has some very strong moments as the emotional Ivy, Jason's pregnant girlfriend. Emma Beekman is much too young to be playing Peter's mother, Claire, but she sings her big solo, "Warning," quite well. Jason Mann is a strong presence onstage, and in Act 2, his character (a priest) really comes to life. But he needs to learn how to commit fully when forming the sign of the cross and to do it in the correct manner.

Overall the cast works very hard, but the show hasn't quite gelled for the director, Ryan Roberge. Duwuany Cannon Jr.'s choreography comes across messy, and the actors sometimes seem hesitant as to what they were supposed to do (which happens on various opening nights, especially ones haunted by the aforementioned tech tumult). Even the great Topher Warren, as Sister Chantelle, can't save the proceedings; his "God Don't Make No Trash" was certainly powerful, but "911! Emergency" was just so odd and off with Warren in drag looking not unlike Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf and backed by dancers donning angel wings.

Needless to say, BARE is not appropriate for young children. It proudly contains lots of adult language, sexual situations, drug use, and a brief moment of frontal nudity. But some of the choices of the director wind up in the head-scratching department. I still don't understand the BARE necessity of having a character wandering around the stage, groping a large penis piñata, unless for an easy laugh. When looking back on the show, forget the struggles of the two lead teens; it's the phallic pinata that we recall.

Although it may be a labor of love, BARE is not a joyous experience at all. But the last moments of it are very moving, and it ends on a very somber, meaningful note.

As for the production, it will obviously improve as it continues its run at the Carrollwood Players Theatre (11:00 PM Fridays and Saturdays; 7:00 PM Sundays; its final performance is September 22; tickets are $27 each). Growing pains are only natural for a new semi-professional theatre group, so I can't wait to see what they do next. And PJMA Theater Productions' next show is already in line: the notorious Carrie: the Musical, to be performed in March. I look forward to seeing that one in all of its pig's-blood splattering glory!


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