Bare (Understudy Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
May 24 – June 3
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.
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’).
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.