By John Quinn
If “bare” (aka “bare: A Pop Opera”) is any indication, Catholic school is a lot more fun than I remember. Well, scratch that; I’m not sure drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll is “fun” so much as leading a bunch of innocents to walk the edge of a dangerous precipice. Definitely they’re facing challenges simply never discussed in my day. In “bare,” an ambitious production at The Box Theatre in Mount Clemens, that includes “the love that dare not speak its name.”
With lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr. and music by Damon Intrabartolo, “bare” debuted at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001. It was produced off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors in the spring of 2004. Superficially, it could be described as “Glee” meets “Spring Awakening,” but it predates those cultural touchstones. The musical confronts the clash between a homosexual relationship and traditionalist Catholicism.
Peter (Steven Ross) and Jason (Jeff Bobick) share a room at St. Cecilia’s, a Catholic boarding school. They also share a secret relationship. If we have any doubts that they are in for a bad time, we should pick up on the hint that the spring play their senior year is the quintessential tale of star-crossed lovers, “Romeo and Juliet.” Jason is playing Romeo; Peter, his “best friend,” Mercutio. The role of Juliet falls to Ivy (Jillian Hoffman), who is infatuated with BMOC Jason. The triangle is actually a wrecked tangle since Tybalt, Romeo’s enemy, is being played by Matt (Alex Pedica), who is jealous of the attention Ivy showers on Jason. As the drama proceeds, Peter is becoming more at ease with his sexual identity, while the conflicted Jason cannot come to terms with the societal pressure. And you thought YOU had problems!
First and foremost: This production succeeds in spite of the material’s weaknesses. There are 36 numbers and reprises in the show, some good, some not so good. Some should have been jettisoned by the composers to sharpen the focus on their theme. In the spirit of opera, there is little spoken dialogue, so the lyrics must convey the drama. They are at time pedestrian; “Just think about tonight/When everything’s all right” comes to mind. The score is drawn from multiple genres, but tends toward long recitative in minor key that can all begin to sound the same. That’s why the 180 degree change of pace in Michael Stoyanoff’s snappy rap number “Wonderland” and the high-octane Gospel turns by the sharp-tongued but savvy Sister Chantelle (Shondra Tipler) are so delightful.
Outstanding for more than just her florescent-streaked hair is Jojo Tuzzo as Jason’s brash, “Plain Jane” sister, Nadia. Nadia is the most fully developed character in the script, and Tuzzo plays the subtext just right. Her first act ballad, “A Quiet Night at Home,” self-accompanied on guitar, was an audience favorite.
The performances are enthusiastic and energetic – so much so one wonders how director Eric Swanson managed to confine this 15-member cast to the postage stamp sized space of the Box Theatre.
Also right in tune is the four-piece combo fronted by musical director Gerianne Ditto. If there is any complaint in the music department, it’s this: The principals are miked – and I’m not sure some of them aren’t relying too heavily on the electronics. I’m not a sound guy, but I imagine feedback could be a real problem if the microphones are turned up. So it’s back to basics, class – project!
What’s That Smell? Productions took a leap of faith in this outing. Melding a big, largely unknown musical to a tiny performance space is a challenge, but a little faith seems to have gone a long way.
What’s That Smell? Productions at The Box Theater, 51 N. Walnut, Mount Clemens. Thursday-Saturday through Aug. 27. $20. 586-954-2311. http://www.theboxtheater.com