Reviewed by George Basler
Being totally blindsided by a show doesn’t happen very often. But that’s what happened to me last weekend when I saw bare: A Pop Opera, staged by SRO Underground, a branch of SRO Productions III.
Even though the musical has played in New York City and across the country, I didn’t know much about the show, except that it focused on a group of students coming of age in a Catholic boarding school. I was expecting a snide, bitter send-up of Catholic school education with stock characters being held up to easy ridicule.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead of taking easy shots, bare is an emotionally intense and poignant show that explores the sometimes wrenching experience of adolescence.
And the SRO Underground production at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City was a triumph, with a strong and talented 15-member cast bringing the show to life with skill and great chemistry. Director Mike Meaney and musical director Megan Armenio deserve a lot of credit.
The musical features a book by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo. Intrabartolo also wrote the music — a mix of pop, rock, traditional Broadway ballads and gospel — and Hartmere wrote the lyrics.
The action centers on the relationship between two gay students: Peter, an artistic, somewhat geeky kid, and Jason, the school’s “golden boy,” who has the same feelings but hides his sexual preference out of fear of society’s rejection.
Despite changing attitudes, acceptance of homosexuality remains a difficult issue for many people, and certainly for the Catholic church. It’s clear where Hartmere and Intrabartolo stand on the issue, but there are no stereotypical villains in their musical. Even a distant parent and an ineffectual priest are treated with honesty and sympathy.
The show also interweaves other plot lines featuring the school’s “ugly duckling” girl, Nadia, who uses sarcastic comments to get by; the school’s “slut,” Iva, who is more complex and emotionally vulnerable than she seems, and Jason’s friend, Matt, who is carrying a torch for Ivy.
All the characters could have easily come across as clichés, but the SRO Underground cast made them real people you care about.
Not that bare: A Pop Opera doesn’t have its flaws. While the score is filled with good songs, it’s sometimes overly strident and blaring. And Hartmere’s lyrics are painfully weak in some numbers. Also, despite some comic relief, the show wears its earnestness on its sleeve, and that can be a bit taxing.
A flaw specific to the SRO Underground production was an excessive sound system that amplified the actors’ voices to such a high level that the lyrics, especially in the up-tempo numbers, were indistinct at times.
Despite this, the SRO Underground cast was terrific from top to bottom. Each brought a strong singing voice and acting skills to his, or her, role. This is especially important because bare is very much an ensemble show.
Andrew Simek and Joshua Smith anchored the show as the gay students. With great sensitivity, Simek conveyed Peter’s transition from a quasi-outsider to a person who “comes out” literally and figuratively, even to the point that he is willing to extend forgiveness and understanding.
Smith was remarkable as Jason. He caught the character’s confusion and emotional upheaval. It was a deeply moving performance.
Other cast members also got a chance to shine. Annie Graham gave a first-rate performance as Nadia, who hides her pain with quips. Anna Simek was emotionally compelling as Ivy, and Matt Edlind was fine as “best friend” Matt, although his character is not as well developed as the others.
Applause also should go Mari Lewis who played a sympathetic nun, Sister Chantelle. Her number in the second act, “God Don’t Make No Trash,” is one of the show’s highlights. Unfortunately, her big number in the first act, “911! Emergency” fell victim to the blaring sound system. Many of the words were lost in the musical intensity.
Eli Carlin also deserves kudos for his performance of a clever, semi-rap number in the first act, and Scott Fisher makes the most of his small role as a priest. He catches the character’s quandary of wanting to do good, but failing to get beyond clichés and orthodoxy.
Terri Jo Ramia, as Peter’s mother, gives a riveting performance when she sings a second-act ballad expressing her confusion when her son comes out to her. The character, who was a cipher until then, becomes overwhelmingly real. Ramia’s performance was so good that, from this perspective, she almost stole the show.
In the end, bare’s deep feeling made up for any flaws it possessed. It raised questions about faith and acceptance that made you think, without providing any easy answers. It was a great night of theater.
I look forward to what SRO Underground will do in the future. In fact, I wish they were performing a second weekend of bare: A Pop Opera. Come on, kids, get back together and do it! I’ll even help you sell tickets.