Monday, December 17, 2012

REVIEW: Bare: The Musical

Review of the Saturday, December 15 performance at Stagee 4 of New World Stages in New York City.  Starring Jason Hite, Taylor Trensch, Elizabeth Judd, Gerard Canonico, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Missi Pyle, Jerold E. Soloman.  Music by Damon Intrabartolo.  Book and lyrics by Jon Hartmere, Jr.  Additional music by Lynne Shankel.  Choreography by Travis Wall.  Direction by Stafford Arima.  2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission.  Adult language, sexually explicit content.

Grade: A-

I find the social media response to Bare: the Musical to be very telling and pretty ironic.  In some ways, the show is getting what it asks for by updating the piece to include texting, mass emailing, and digital photography as an important "character." It stands to reason, then, that those very outlets would be chock full of chatter about this latest incarnation of the show by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere.  The audience the show hopes to attract is having its say on Twitter, Facebook, any number of blogs and even Instagram.  As you might guess, opinions are all over the virtual map.  The irony is that these reactions are often based on half the story, just as the half truths and the appearance versus reality of events as captured by the social media used by the characters in the show cause similarly impassioned reactions to events in the musical.  How many people could possibly have seen BOTH versions of the show at this point?  How fair is it to compare a full production to a concept recording?  I won't attempt to answer those questions in this review (you can probably guess my feelings about that), nor will I do a comprehensive comparison.  Instead, I am going to try to review this as a completely separate production (because it is), evaluating elements on their own, current merit, and then winding it up with a brief impression about how the revisions of this revival compare to the original.

"A Million Miles from Heaven"
The Cast of Bare: The Musical
You can't escape the immediacy of this production from the moment you sit down at New World Stages' Stage 4 space. The set, designed by Tony-winner Donyale Werle, is a beehive of open boxes, if you will, covered with thousands of images from Instagram - perfect squares, carefully pasted together, representing one second of life captured by a smart phone.  Each photo bares the exact, inescapable truth of a given second in a series surrounding seconds, without thought to how accurately that one second captures the larger truth about the lives of their subjects.  One second, a pair of best friends may be captured in a private moment of happiness.  But who knows what happened in the seconds before or the lifetime after that one second.  In short, the set and even how it is lit (by Howell Binkley) serve as a constant reminder that we are in an age of truth by the instant.  How that comes into play in the story of Bare is both enormous in implication, and, appropriately, a harsh reminder that these days all it takes is one tick of the clock, one flash of the camera, to change lives forever, and often, without regard for the consequences.  This set, lighting, and  William Cusick's projection design, serve multiple purposes.  We are literally all over St. Ceclia's boarding high school, often in multiple locations at once.  Figuratively, we see the teens and the faculty many times in separate windows/boxes, compartmentalized by each other or separated by their own private angst, and, more often than not, the specter of religion (and all that that implies) hangs over it all as headmaster Father Mike paces back and forth above it all, observing.  Is he judging?  Sometimes.  Is he there to help or hinder?  Both.  In the world of Bare, religion is always present and always judging, but more a problem than a solution.  Of course, this flies in the face of what these kids have been taught about God, only adding to their angst, not healing it.

Gerard Canonico and Elizabeth Judd (center)
and Company
Putting it all together is teen musical go-to-guy, Stafford Arima, who has taken great pains to allow the relationships between every character to define how the space is used.  His direction is both straight forward and symbolic.  His use of space and the "boxes" of the set allows for multiple locales to be viewed at once.  Arima often creates some beautiful stage pictures to convey themes; often, it is the wordless tableaux that are more powerful that the script and songs.  Travis Wall's energetic, athletic choreography serves the opening, "A Million Miles from Heaven," and the climactic party scene very wll.  But I have say, as moving as the choreography is in the final number, "One Voice," I can't help but notice how very similar these moves are to the moves in "Touch Me" in Spring Awakening.  Homage?  I don't think so.

And what about those kids?  Well, they are certainly cutting edge as a group.  Witness their dress and look (costumes by Tristan Raines, hair and make up by Leah J. Loukas) which is so of the moment, that one wonders if the cast will be dressed in completely new outfits every week of the run.  The only hint that these teens go to a Catholic boarding school is the occasional blazer and skinny tie, which are apparently only marginally required.  Here, they are allowed some measure of self-expression.  And as the adults in the audience will observe, the more each student tries to express their individuality, the more they really are alike.  Like all American high schools, this place has its outcasts (self-imposed), its easy girls, its jocks and its geeks; each student is compartmentalized, all while believing they are individuals.  It is the angst of these kids and the secrets each harbors that propel this story.  Add the presence of bullying, forbidden love and the conflicting need to both conform and be an individual, and you have a recipe for a relatively honest look at the American teenager circa 2012.  For the most part, this revised version of the show is very effective to that end.

What really makes this production hum is the superlative cast, from top to bottom, each a triple-threat.  An ensemble in every sense of the word, the cast easily moves back and forth from a unified community to cliques with attitude, to friends with a pack mentality to individuals trying to figure out who they are, and back again.  Sara Kapner and Megan Lewis (on for Ariana Groover) perfectly capture those self-involved bitchy girls, while Alice Lee and Alex Wyse bring a very welcome sense of humor to their scenes - she's the sweet but dim airhead who just wants to be liked, while he's a Jew in a Catholic school.  Both are quite funny and all four bring a lot to each scene where they are "in the background."  Much care has been given to make sure that even when these characters are not the focus of the scene, they provide nice subtext.  The same can be said for the bad boy jocks (and ultimately the bullies, naturally) - each self-absorbed swagger and hyper-sexualized moment is played to the testosterone-filled hilt by Michael Tacconi, Justin Gregory Lopez and Casey Garvin.  What is terrific about all three is that they make much more of what could easily be one dimensional stereotypes.

"I didn't know who else to turn to..."
Jerold E. Soloman and Jason Hite
As the Principal and spiritual guide of the school, Jerold E. Soloman is a somewhat menacing presence, and he manages to bring a great deal of unspoken story to the piece, emphasizing that there is as much going on under his collar and frock as there is going on with his students.  One of the best aspects of the whole show is what is unspoken and left to the audience when it comes to Father Mike.  What is he covering up?  Is there something about him that he fears will be exposed?  Do all priests lie in the name of the Lord?  As the super cool and deeply feeling nun/teacher, Sister Joan, Missi Pyle is nothing less than amazing.  She commands the stage whenever she's on it - purposely when she comes to Peter as the Virgin Mary, and even  when she's a part of the bigger picture.  She exudes a charisma that, like the best real life teachers, draws you to her, makes you listen to her and want to learn from her.  It is no wonder she gets such an enthusiastic hand at the curtain.

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Company
And while is all but certain that every single cast member will move on to huge careers in the future, right now what is a certainty is that the five young leads of Bare are among the hardest working and passionate a group as any on the New York stage today.  These "stars of tomorrow" include the complex and moody Barrett Wilbert Weed, whose soulful, troubled eyes tell us more about her character, Nadia, than any five pages of dialogue.  Her powerful belt combined with many smaller moments of quiet understatement do much to convey her character's deep troubles and contradictory nature; it is a thoroughly captivating performance.  Equally angst-ridden among the characters is Matt, described as an "emo puppy dog," played to perfection by Gerard Canonico with his heart on his sleeve - the ache of unrequited love, the pangs of jealousy, and the boyish, unthinking glee of revealing secrets without any thought to consequence.  This is a role that would easily lend itself to some serious scenery chewing, and, quite frankly, it is a relief to report that at last Mr. Canonico has resisted the urge to do just that.  The result? His most powerful, honest performance to date.  Oh, and his voice?  Emotionaly powerful - witness his "Portrait of a Girl" and "Are You There?"  Elizabeth Judd so sweet as Wendla in a tour of Spring Awakening, really comes into her own as a young musical theatre actress with her performance as Ivy.  Judd's task is not a simple one - she must be likable enough for us to believe that not one, but two nice guys would find her attractive, but be enough of a threat so as to make the girls jealous and want to take her down.  She really understands the complexities of a young woman who uses alcohol and drugs to mask the pain and uses her body as a weapon.  Like I said, hers is not an easy task.  Her voice is lovely - her powerful belt is on display in one hell of a duet with Miss Weed.  There is no song list, but I think it is called "You Don't Know Me" or at least that is the sentiment.

The star-crossed lovers before
opening night of Romeo and Juliet
The main couple here - the perfect, all-American jock, Jason, and his secret lover, the bookish geek, Peter - is crucial to the success of Bare in any version.  But here, they have really hit the jackpot.  The powerfully voiced, uber-masculine, and beguilingly vulnerable Jason Hite is making a star turn in his New York debut.  He is a mesmerizing presence - it is difficult not to watch him at all times.  And his rendition of "Role of a Lifetime" is performed with such intensity and nuance its really the equivalent of a soliloquy or aria.  It is easy to see why the ladies love him, whyhis teammates respect him, and why Peter has fallen head over heels for him.  Charisma fairly pours out of him, and you can't help but fall under his spell, too, as his vulnerabilities and fears take over his life and lead him toward his tragic end.  Equally compelling, and for mostly different reasons, is the magnetic performance of Taylor Trensch, who throws every bit of his essence into his complex, quirky performance.  You can see the pain in his eyes, and the cracks in his outwardly sure smile reveal his struggle to keep his own secrets.  His jittery, almost constant motion and nervous ticks and cracking voice reveal an underlying fear of exposure, and later, an explosive need to show the world who he really is.  Trensch is an actor-singer in the same way John Gallagher Jr. and even Alice Ripley are - he uses is voice, and all of its unique qualities to convey true character first, sterling vocal prowess second.  That is not to say he has a weak voice, to the contrary.  But rather than pretty it up, Trensch allows Peter's tears and raw emotions to be part of how he sings the songs.  Faced with giving a eulogy for his lover at one point, it is much more believable and extremely powerful that he struggles to get the words out, gulping and cracking and losing tone, but then regaining it.  Tears flowed down his cheeks, and tears were in ample supply in the audience as well, as together we reached the cathartic, if tragic, final moments of this wonderfully honest and real story of teenage love and loss.

Ultimately, I can understand the need to compare the two versions, but this new "musical" version is so different, I think it justly stands on its own.  Neither version is/was perfect - it is still just a tad too pat.  But most of the changes work in the show's favor.  The addition of book scenes do flesh out the characters and offer a nice break from the amplified angst that singing in a pop opera automatically creates.  Most of the new songs work (again, I don't have a song list to work with), especially the dramatic and catchy "Million Miles" the opens the show, the duet with Nadia and Ivy, and the clever pop song about best friends for Peter and Diane, providing much needed humor.  (You can bet that kind of silly pop princess tune plays in a constant loop in Dane's head.)  And I really loved the song that has replaced "911 Emergency."  Less successful is one of the first new songs after the opening that is new - a litany of platitudes in rhyming couplets whose rhymes you can guess before they are sung, and the second act song of reassurance between Peter and Sister Joan.  That song itself isn't bad - it fits the role of Sister Joan perfectly as cast, but I miss the power of the soulful "God Don't Make No Trash."  The reassignment of songs to different characters and the almost complete change in the character of Nadia work especially well across the board, as I mentioned above with reference to Mr. Hite and Mr. Canonico.

Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch
What really, really does not work is the almost consistently unneeded change to the lyrics in most of the existing songs.  I can live with lyric changes, but not when they don't add a thing to the show and are so verbally dense that often time the meaning gets lost in the need to match every single note with a complete word.  Further, if it weren't for Mr. Hite and Mr. Trensch's performances, both could seem very one note.  What is needed is very apparent; I am amazed no one on the creative team thought of them.  We need to see more of Jason and Peter's relationship - when it was good, and not just a romp under a blanket or in stolen kisses performed while we are supposed to be watching something else (this happens too frequently).  And how about allowing us to fall in love with Jason by seeing him with some humor and on a good day, not just in scene after scene of fear and cover-up?  The flashback scene that shows us how they first met is a great start, but Jason could use some beefing up so that we can feel for both of these star-crossed lovers.

I understand that Bare is still in flux - that further revisions might be forthcoming for future productions.  Whether that is the case or not, this version, while not problem free, makes Bare a viable piece of musical theatre.  The entire cast and the majority of the score makes this show a must-see for modern musical theatre enthusiasts.  And fans of the original, try to see this as a new show.  Open your minds - your heart will still be moved.

(Photos by Chad Batka.  Click to enlarge each.)


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