Bursting Bare

Bare (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 24 – June 3

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Understudy Production’s “Bare” is one of those much-buzzed-about shows whose run has been pretty-much sold out since before its opening night, and so its packed audience is filled with anticipation. Thankfully, it is an expectation that is realised in a slick production bursting with talent.

Since the pop-opera debuted in Los Angeles in 2000, before its 2004 off-Broadway production, it has become a contemporary cult classic. Its shades of “Holding The Man” story is of star-crossed lovers Peter (Shaun Kohlman), who is preparing to come out to his mother (Jenny Woodward), and resident golden boy Jason (Jason Bentley), who desperately wants to keep their attraction secret. The boys are among Catholic boarding school students rehearsing for a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while struggling with their own ideas around religion, sexuality and identity. So emotions are running high when the boys’ romance gradually comes to light (finding echoes in the drama club’s production) not just for the boys themselves but those around them, including Jason’s sharp-tonged and self-deprecating sister Nadia (Sarah Whalen) and the popular Ivy (Jordan Malone) who has been cast as Juliet to Jason’s Romeo in the play, but whose feelings transcend the stage.

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The show is, indeed, an emotional one of much light and shade. Act One explores the characters and the cast connect well with each other, however, Act Two is the standout as it takes a heartbreaking turn thanks to the consummate performances of the cast’s principle players. Kohlman brings depth and emotional range to the vulnerable Peter. He not only has tears running down his cheeks at times, but evokes them in audience member eyes also in response to the show’s tragic final moments. And Bentley has a strong stage presence as the popular athlete Jason who fears losing his family and status. His charisma effectively conveys not only Jason’s natural charm, but his complexity, making him difficult to dislike despite his poor decisions and treatment of the tender Peter. Malone gives a strong but tender performance as the troubled Ivy, who has her sights set on Jason, at her best in ballads such as ‘All Grown Up, which vocally capture her heartbreak.

Also of note is Sarah Whalen whose perfect comic timing makes Jason’s outspoken sister Nadia’s biting wit, hilarious in its tell-it-as-it-is put-downs of Ivy for her pursuit of her brother. And Melissa Western is superb as the school’s sassy, no-nonsense drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, who also appears to an intoxicated Peter as a vision of the Virgin Mary, complete with backup Angels, to sing a funky gospel number about how he needs to come out to his mother (‘911 Emergency’).

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There are no weak links among ensemble performances either. Fresh from his run as Collins in “Rent”, James Shaw is committed in his performance of the Priest’s Old Testament judgment and makes his Act Two song ‘Cross’, during which, at confession, he advises Jason to deny his natural feelings, vocally very strong. And Maddison McDonald and Trent Owers are delightfully authentic in their moments on stage as the frisky teens with attitude.

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The show’s sung-through score features a variety of melodies, from rock numbers to soaring ballads and even a rap about rave drugs (‘Wonderland’), and, accordingly, it is easy to appreciate its sometimes-description as the artistic child of “Rent”. The band is excellent throughout. In Act One, in particular, Musical Director Luke Volker creates a solid rock sound, while when souls are bared in Act Two, with Jason struggling through his problems with Ivy (‘Touch My Soul’) and Peter deciding to come out to his mother (‘See Me’), musical moments are softened with some exquisite string sounds courtesy of cellist Kate Robinson.

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The musical pace, is, however, relentless. With 36 numbers in total, it becomes difficult to recall standouts beyond sassy Sister Chantelle’s belting ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’ during which she shows intuitive sensitivity and New Testament compassion to calm Peter’s fears of losing his great love. Aside from the final number ‘No Voice’ which represents a beautiful combine of ensemble voices, it is the solo numbers in this production that are most affecting, beginning with duet between Peter and his mother which features as a turning point in the show’s tone, given its raw emotion.

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The complex conversations set to music in many of the show’s numbers give their words an appealing honesty and the integration of Shakespearean prose as lyrics adds another, wonderful layer to an already impressive aesthetic. Versatile use is made of the Visy Theatre space, with a stained glass backdrop and benches shaped together as a cross, not only achieving an intimacy in spite of its large cast, but reminding that religion is always present. And the choreography is excellent, making the relatively small stage seem anything but, yet never impinging of the enthusiastic energy of ensemble rock numbers. Only some missed microphone cues clunk up an otherwise perfectly polished, professional production.

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“Bare” is no breezy musical experience. Its weighty subject matter of turmoil and moral hypocrisy amidst the breakdown of institutions like religion, education and the family make for an emotionally charged, tension-filled story. The pop-rock chronicle of ill-fated gay love at a co-ed Roman Catholic boarding school may be an ambitious undertaking, but it is an aspiration resolutely realised.

As an important piece in its portrayal of those still struggling to be heard even in today’s yes-vote world, it is perfect for inclusion in the Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. The honest and real story of teenage love and loss confirms Understudy Productions not just as a rising star, but a company with a prominent place in the Brisbane theatre scene, and, as such, should not be missed.

Rent rejoice

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 2 – 20

You might not be able to buy love, but you can Rent it. I discovered this 22 years ago when I saw Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” on Broadway, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a self-confessed Renthead, I not only know the soundtrack by sing-a-long heart, but have now been fortunate enough to see over half a dozen different productions. And compatibility speaking, Matt Ward Entertainment’s 2018 realisation, is right up there with the best, which is particularly impressive given the theatre company’s emerging status.

The high energy take on the modern bohemian classic packs a musical punch. In fact, it is always about the music, which barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from within the scaffolding that helps set the scene of Bohemian life in the East Village’s Alphabet City. With a song range that includes soul, techno, Latin and gospel, there is an eclectic mix of styles, yet the soundtrack sounds smooth and succeeds in evoking a range of emotions. When the entire cast communes on stage for the slower, signature Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’ to ask what the proper way is to quantify the value of a year in human life, for example, one cannot help but both rejoice in their harmony but also reflect on Larson’s passing following the show’s off-Broadway final dress rehearsal.

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Appropriately, the show begins musically too, with lone musician Roger (Luigi Lucente) sitting atop a table, playing his electric guitar. Even without conventional theatrical elements, the audience is immediately absorbed in the show’s whirlwind of raw emotion. It is not just Roger’s story, but one of a tight-knit group of complex characters, impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village in the late ‘80s, based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème”. From one Christmas to the next we follow their dreams, losses and loves as they struggle through life under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

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Roger is a grieving HIV-positive rocker. His roommate Mark (Tom Oliver) is a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends. Together they live in a rundown, unattended warehouse loft owned by their former roommate Benny (Isaac Lindley), whose marriage into money has seen his become not only a budding entrepreneur but their rent collector. Their anarchist College instructor and computer genius friend Collins (James Shaw) is embarking on a new romance with Angel (Trent Owers), a big-hearted drag queen and street drummer who, like Collins, has AIDS.

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Roger fears falling in love with Mimi (Stephie Da Silva), a spirited exotic dance and drug addict, while Mark still has feelings for his kooky centre-of-attention artist ex Maureen (Ruby Clark) who stages a performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’, to protest Benny’s plans to evict the homeless camp in the empty lot next to the loft. Unfortunately for Mark though, Maureen has left him for Joanne (Kirrah Amosa), a crusading lawyer from a rich family.

Despite the multiple, intersecting storylines, all members of the key cast are given moments to shine and shine they do. Indeed, there are no weak links amongst the entire ensemble cast. Tom Oliver is an endearing Mark in a Johnny Galecki type way. Lucente is an ultimately-passionate Roger and his ‘One Song Glory’ solo rock ballad sing about his dying wish to leave his mark on the world is a sensitive and expressive early show highlight. While Owers is a little breathy in his physically-demanding solo ‘Today 4 U’, his gentleness projects Angel as the sweet soul of the show. And Shaw makes Collins’ Act Two ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise an absolutely heartfelt reminiscence, at-once emotional and commanding. There is phenomenal vocal prowess amongst the ladies too. Da Silva makes easy work of Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger alone in his apartment, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is a powerful duet between Amosa and Clark during a dramatic breakup between the controlling Joanne and flirty Maureen.

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It is the ensemble numbers, however, that ultimately shine brightest. The optimistic ‘Another Day’, is stirring in its rallying cry to embrace love and live in the moment according to the slogan ‘Forget regret — or life is yours to miss’. There is visual interest in every ensemble number too, with performers fully absorbed in their characters. Owers, for example, is especially nuanced in every glance and movement as Angel, even when as background to centre-stage action.

This is an exciting and passionate production of a ground-breaking work that shows why its rock soundtrack has been a pinnacle of musical theatre history for over two decades. While aspects of its storyline may have dated, many of its themes of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are still sadly relevant. More importantly still, is its beautiful, overriding message of love enduring beyond all else, which, as this production shows, still stands as central to the narrative for both old and emerging Rentheads to rejoice.