The title of the show is what makes the distinction. Bare: The Musical is different than its predcessor Bare: A Pop Opera. I’ve been a fan of Bare since 2004. The show had a run at American Theatre of Actors, which I missed (although I’ve seen bits of that on YouTube over the years). That fall it was supposed to transfer for a commercial run, but that fell apart. I did pick up the songs that were offered for free download and became a huge fan. In 2007 a full studio recording was released and it was great to finally hear the entire show. Now, Bare is back in New York and finally making it’s off-Broadway debut. The show has changed, however, from a sing-through to a more traditional book musical. The change in format, along with rewrites to story and songs, took some getting used to.
I’m splitting this review up into two parts: 1) looking at this new show specifically, without comparison to what came before and 2) talking about the changes.
I saw Bare last Sunday at the matinee as the company finished its first week of previews. The show is already in great shape (in fact the only issue in the performance wasn’t with what was happening on stage, but a technical glitch that kept the house lights from going down at the start of the show). Director Stafford Arima, who staged the revamped Carrie earlier this year, does a great job to present this coming-of-age/coming-out/anti-bullying story that has multiple plot lines to juggle.
Set in a co-ed Catholic boarding school, Bare has a few story points and key players. There’s Peter and Jason who have fallen in love. Peter wants to go public but jock Jason lives in fear of the possible repercussions. Ivy, the “bad” girl, wants Jason… but also wants to escape her reputation. Ivy, Jason’s sister and the school’s drug supplier, wants to be less misunderstood. Matt has a major crush on Ivy, but Ivy simply doesn’t seem him; meanwhile, he is massively jealous of Jason. Father Mike presides over the school and he’s very concerned with perception rather than reality. Sister Joan is grounded in the present and works to guide the students towards having faith in the reality of the 21st Century.
You should skip this paragraph if you don’t want to get caught up in *spoilers*. As you can imagine, the revelation of Peter and Jason’s relationship is a major climax of the show and it’s done with a focus on social media/texting to show how fast a secret can travel. Complicating matters is Jason who gets Ivy pregnant during a one night stand in an attempt to prove himself that he’s not gay. Peter does what he can in act one to get the relationship with Jason to work, but after he’s pushed aside too often by Jason he’s lets it go even as Peter begs him to keep their secret going. Even before her pregnancy, Ivy struggles to shake of her slut reputation, which followed her to this school. It’s a complex myriad of relationships that bounce all over the stage and often complicated by the other students.
Jason Hite, making his off-Broadway debut, is outstanding as Peter. As he’s caught up trying to keep the relationship with Peter a secret while trying to be the perfect son/student/athlete he gets more frantic and unhinged. Hite runs the gamut of emotions perfectly, coming to a head with songs like “Role of a Lifetime” and his duet with Peter in “Bare.” Elizabeth Judd, no stranger to teen agnst having been in both Spider-Man Turn off the Dark and Spring Awakening, embodies Ivy with both strength and fragility. Her “Portrait of a Girl” and “All Grown Up” are heartbreaking. Gerard Canonico, another Spring Awakening alumn, is a great Matt, who comes across as an open book. While he’s on stage, watching him silently watching the action can be tough as he’s hurt time after time.
The movement choreography is fantastic. Travis Wall, who I am a big fan of from his work on So You Think You Can Dance, has created powerful moves for many of the musical numbers. I especially liked the work in the closing number, “No Voice,” as the students vocalize their feelings about what has happened.
The songs, originally written by Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere (with Hartmere tackling the new book and additional music coming from Lynne Shankel), are the cornerstone of the show. You get a sample of the songs in the video that appears a few paragraphs down. I’ve noted some of the best ones above but because the Playbill doesn’t have a song list, it’s difficult for me to speak well about the songs that I don’t already know. I liked all of the songs and hope there’s a recording of this version of the show to add to my existing one.
It was great to see Bare finally come to life with such a solid production. I’m hopeful the show has a lengthy run at New World Stages. The show delivers powerful messages, and it supports, and gives a voice, to vital organizations such as The Matthew Shepard Foundation, The Tyler Clementi Foundation, The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Athlete Ally, Human Rights Campaign and Faith in America to name a few. All of these organizations have talkbacks with the audience so, if you’re planning on going, you should check to see what talkbacks are coming up via the Bare website.
Here’s a preview of Bare: The Musical. This clip contains three songs–“Best Kept Secret,” “You Don’t Know” and “Million Miles From Heaven” (which opens the show).
So while I enjoyed Bare: The Musical I grieve over some of the material that got jettisoned from Bare: A Pop Opera. *Spoilers* are plentiful in this area, so be forewarned. Here are some of the things I noticed in the new version:
- Jason and Peter are no longer roommates. From what I’ve read, this was done to make it less easy for them to carry on their relationship. But it seemed to massively separate them. I think making spend more time apart, diluted the power of Peter fighting for their relationship and the difficulty Jason has in making his choices.
- Sister Joan is no Sister Chantelle. I can’t even fathom why this was done. They share some of the same characteristics in that they look out for the students. But Sister Chantelle personified a diva too, a la Jennifer Holliday; whereas Sister Joan tries, but just doesn’t have a diva mode. Moreover, Sister Chantelle’s songs are gone. “911 Emergency!” where she portrayed a rather sassy Virgin Mary visiting Peter in a hallucination, was brilliant in delivering its message that Peter needed to own the truth about himself. The stand in for this song doesn’t work as well. An even bigger loss is “God Don’t Make No Trash” with its reminder that God does not make mistakes, and that includes making people gay. Again, the song in its place doesn’t do the job as well.
- The switch from sing-through to book musical was striking. In an article on Playbill.com, co-creator and co-writer Jon Hartmere said ” “That’s probably the biggest change — having more space to explore the characters. To know these characters a little bit better… you just need more room — you need more room for book scenes, and I personally just wanted to get under the hood and investigate a little bit further.” I didn’t feel I got to know the characters better, just differently. There are countless sing-through shows out there that explore character. Making the switch and losing so many good songs seemed a strange way to go.
- Some things that were cut, were good choices. Gone, for example, is Peter’s dream that opened the second act where he and Jason marry. This always seemed like a random add-on and it stood out as something that’s not missed with the update.
- Peter’s mother is no longer a character. Losing her took away most of Peter’s scenes grappling with his own coming out. This was a distinct loss in Peter’s character development.
- The addition of social media, texting, bullying. There was always an underlying vibe of bullying in the show and that’s amplified here, which is certainly more relevant and topical today than it was back in 2003 and 2004 when the show was initially developed. The addition of social media also makes sense, although it doesn’t seem like it would take such major structural changes to the show to add this.
- All the original songs seem to be tweaked. Granted I know some better than others, but every song I know well has been adjusted to some degree, and some are even reassigned. There is one key point where this works–giving “Role of a Lifetime” to Jason to sing about his own situation is much more powerful than Peter singing about his understanding of Jason’s situation. “You and I” underwent a change too as that’s now sung only by Peter, rather than a Peter and Jason duet. In some cases, I understand why the song was tweaked because the context shifted a bit in the new structure, but in other cases it was like change for change sake.