Organized religion’s inability to deal with homosexuality has become a hot subject for local playwrights as of late. The current Zephyr Theatre production of Del Shore’s “Southern Baptist Sissies” peruses the angst-ridden lives of four gay Texas youth. Now, the monumentally ambitious pop opera, “Bare,” explores the tragic love affair of Jason (John Griffin) and Peter (John Torres), two Catholic high school students at upscale St. Celia’s Boarding School. The team of Jon Hartmere Jr. (book, lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (book, music) have wrought a magnificent, totally original contemporary musical extravaganza that explores the schism between youthful passion and theological dogma.
In a tour de force staging by Kristin Hanggi, an amazingly talented 21-member ensemble soars through this insightful tale of contemporary youth who have been given all the advantages of life except the guidance of how to live it. But the story line is less memorable than the 32-song score that is an adroit amalgamation of contemporary pop, alternative rock, new age sounds, rap and flat out rhythm ‘n’ blues. Underscored brilliantly by keyboardist Intrabartolo and a facile six-member instrumental ensemble, the almost nonstop flow of musical numbers accomplishes the seldom realized ideal of facilitating the story while offering individual musical gems that can stand on their own.
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The plot focuses mainly on the senior year dilemmas of casually self-confident “golden boy” Jason, the school’s star athlete and top scholar, who is also nonchalantly enjoying the secretive sexual favors of his deeply introspective best friend Peter. As the senior year progresses, Jason is overwhelmed by a plethora of social pressures, complicated by the tenacious attention of school beauty, Ivy (Jenna Leigh Green), and Peter’s growing need to declare his homosexuality and his love for Jason. Fear of being exposed and losing his recently won scholarship to Notre Dame drives Jason out of Peter’s bed and into Ivy’s, causing a downward spiraling series of events that eventually leads to a tragedy that cannot be prevented by the sympathetic but theologically narrow-minded counsel of the school’s Priest (Mark Edgar Stephens).
The musical highlights are many. Griffin’s Jason and Torres’ Peter exude a tangible passion as they soar through the wonderfully melodic romantic duets, “You and I,” “Best Kept Secret,” “Ever After” and the searing “Bare.” Peter also joins anxiety-laden overachiever Matt (Jason Henkel) in a musical plea for God’s guidance in the beautifully cathartic, “Are You There.” Green, who spent three seasons as the villainous Libby Chandler on “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” exudes a romantic sensuality in Ivy’s “One Kiss” duet with Jason and then offers a devastatingly emotional “All Grown Up.”
Two performances that really steal the show are Keili Lefkovitz’s sadly comical turn as Jason’s slovenly, overweight sister, Nadia, and Stephanie Anderson’s soul-singing, thoroughly hip nun, Sister Chantelle. Lefkovitz is devastatingly self-deprecating as she rips through “Plain Jane Fat Ass” and offers a hauntingly fragile “Spring,” an ode to loneliness that is underscored by an excellently performed Bach sonata by cellist David Mergen. Anderson is an awe-inspiring vocal force as she powers her way through the Supremes-like “Mother Love” (backed up by self-serving cherubs Charity Hill and Tassa Hampton) and the gospel-rich “God Don’t Make No Trash.”
The full ensemble is displayed to great effect on the surrealistic first- and second-act openers, “Epiphany” and “Wedding Bells.” They also enliven the celebratory rave party anthem “Wonderland,” and the sarcastic “Birthday, Bitch!” Their show closing “No Voice” is an ominous indictment of a church that fails to hear or understand them.
The success of this production is admirably facilitated by the inventive sets of Dustin Lance Black & William Kaufman, the mood-enhancing lighting of Jay Bolton, the dead-on costuming of Larisa Olson and the perfectly balanced sound design of Casey Stone.