Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: BARE Revival Hits its Mark

Jonah Platt as Jason and Payson Lewis as Peter in bare. Photos by Leigh Schindler

Bare became a cult hit when it premiered in Los Angeles in the fall of 2000. Originally scheduled to run for only six weeks, it ended up playing six months, and became the sweetheart of the musical theatre community, with numerous celebs in attendance and audience members making multiple visits, according to director’s notes. Not bad for a pop opera with a gay love story set in a Catholic boarding school at a time when it was still more common to kiss and not tell than it is today. What a difference 13 years makes.

Today the movement of love and acceptance is much stronger than ever before and while teens still struggle with issues surrounding their sexual identities, bullying, peer pressure and teen suicide, there are many more adults committed to helping, rather than restricting, them. If only the students at St. Cecilia’s Academy in bare had had better guidance.

Payson Lewis
At the heart of the story are two young lovers, Peter (Payson Lewis) and Jason (Jonah Platt), who are forced to hide their truth from prying eyes. Peter is tired of the secrecy and wants to acknowledge their love publicly but Jason is afraid it will destroy his future. As the students prepare for a school production of Romeo and Juliet that often mirrors the events of their own lives, secrecy gives way to misunderstanding, betrayal, and eventually the tragic death of one of the lovers. 

In this revival, director Calvin Remsberg takes Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s original version of the musical and mounts it at the Hayworth Theatre quite beautifully. (Note: this is not the 2012 off-Broadway revised version of the musical.) Critical elements to the show’s success include great casting – which requires terrific voices, and actors who can make incredibly vulnerable acting choices believably – and a musical vision that expresses the heart of its characters without turning it into a reality show of vocal athletics. Thankfully, the creative team has accomplished both.

Musical director Elmo Zapp adds a richer musical texture to Intrabartolo’s score by supplementing the existing vocals with additional choral harmonies. The “No Voice” finale is a thrilling example that will give you shivers when you hear the voices resonate together. His arrangements for the 7-piece orchestra (piano, 2 guitars, bass, drums, cello and violin) create a direct hit to the heart by expressing the characters’ innermost feelings like a musical bridge. It’s a double whammy when you listen to the lyrics of the songs and realize that it’s all there in the writing – pain, longing, fear, joy and hope – and it all plays out together, both musically and emotionally, in the actors’ performances.

Jonah Platt
Payson and Platt literally disappear into their roles, the former as Peter, the emotionally open half of the relationship, the latter as Jason, a golden boy no less in love but challenged by the world’s expectations. Both have terrific pipes, with Payson displaying an effortless ability to float a pianissimo with heartbreaking style as a realization shifts his thought mid-note. 

Jason’s struggle is meaningful to anyone who has desperately looked for courage in the face of impossible odds and Platt offers up a surprisingly deep well of emotions. Over the course of the show the star-crossed lovers experience a role reversal that adds even more poignancy to their journey, especially when it becomes clear that a happy ending is not in sight. 

The supporting leads are terrific. As Ivy, Lindsay Pearce plays the popular girl who uses seduction to cover up her issues with insecurity. Jason’s sister Nadia (a dynamic Shelley Regner at this performance) doesn’t hide her contempt for girls like Ivy who get everything they want and carries secrets of her own, while Matt (Nathan Parrett), in love with Ivy but unable to win her affection, betrays a confidence that hurts them all. 

Two original bare cast members return for this revival: Stephanie Anderson as Sister Chantelle, and John Griffin as the Priest (he was the original Jason), along with Alissa-Nicole Koblentz, who appeared in glory|struck's 2009 Los Angeles reading as Peter’s mother, Claire. Koblentz’s gut-wrenching ballad “Warning” powerfully expresses a mother’s fears, now confirmed, as she searches for an answer to a question that has none. Anderson brings attitude and humor to the streetwise Sister Chantelle and can belt out a song that raises the roof, but Griffin’s tears in the confessional felt overplayed. That level of sympathy doesn’t right true with the church’s still present aversion for gay couples, and without that unforgiving presence, something is lost. Times are a-changing but we still have a long way to go. Plus, a stage full of crying actors releases the audience from its own emotional engagement in the action. 

Opening night had a few sound issues that mix engineer Sean Kozma was able to resolve by the end of the second song. I sat near the front of the house and could easily understand the lyrics, and the balance between the singers and orchestra worked well. Conversely, from that vantage point the bigger picture of Jen Oundjian’s choreography was lost and appeared mainly as a jumble of mechanical moves that I assume was meant to express the manipulation the students felt within the constraints of their Catholic school limitations.

Yet these are small points within a production that succeeds greatly in its overall vision. Bare captures the sincerity and innocence of youth while cautioning us as a society to stop holding them hostage with an antiquated set of rules. Until we all agree that love is love, and all that matters is love, theres work to be done.

glory|struck productions

September 5 – 22, 2013
Hayworth Theatre , 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA  90057 
Tickets: (323) 960-4442

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