Winning, propulsively pop-rock and burning with youthful passion, “Bare” moves, sings and plays with confidence, even if the musical, first seen in New York in 2004, seems to have lost some of its sociopolitical edge in the age of marriage equality and “Glee.” A vibrantly executed revised version of a tuner that originally billed itself as a “pop opera,” this new book-musical version is funnier, sexier and more infectiously satisfying than the original.
The new “Bare” benefits greatly from the clarifying vision of helmer Stafford Arima (also the retooler of the recent “Carrie”) as well as astonishing performances from leads Jason Hite and Taylor Trensch. Dropping the opera pretensions, the beefed-up dialogue in Jon Hartmere’s book scenes now draw out the show’s epic-sized emotions, enhancing the engaging and danceable pop score from Lynne Shankell and Damon Intrabartolo (the original composer).
Supported by an evocative photo montage that suggests a high-tech reliquary, Arima stresses the interconnectedness of a closely bonded community. The altar setting (by Donyale Werle) suggests an oppressive church with thumbnail portraits of young people taking the place of stained-glass-window facets. But while the metaphor successfully deepens the tragic events, Arima and his designers have fully re-imagined the dark heart of “Bare” without losing its capacity to delight.
The plot openly nods in the direction of other works (notably “Dead Poets Society” and “Rent”), leaning heavily on “Romeo and Juliet” without getting too self-consciously mawkish about the parallels. Framed by the rehearsals of the Shakespeare romance, “Bare” tells the story of golden boy Jason (Hite), introverted Peter (Trensch) and their secret affair at a lake house while on holiday. Reality bites when they return to St. Cecilia’s School and Jason locks himself back inside the closet, while Peter can’t help but blurt out the truth to his friend Diane (Alice Lee, in a scene-stealing perf). Complications ensue when Jason throws himself into the arms of the new girl Ivy (Elizabeth Judd), herself being pursued by geeky Matt (Gerard Canonico).
Although “Bare” suffers from too-long a first half — and the ho-hum MTV-style choreography from Travis Wall doesn’t help — most of the show’s elements ably support Arima’s smart re-conception.
The revised book packs more humor and snark than the original, with the wonderfully tart Missi Pyle’s musical number “Hail Mary,” in which she cavorts as a kind of lounge-lizard Virgin Mary, serving as a bright show stopper. Meanwhile, Jason’s two solo numbers, “Role of a Lifetime” and “Once Upon a Time,” superbly plumb the depths of a conscience-stricken soul grappling with bisexuality.
Hite looks like a dreamboat and sings like one, too. More importantly, the actor makes you care about Jason despite his heartthrob character’s callous behavior, and makes Jason’s love for Peter entirely convincing. Opposite him, Trensch broods beautifully and suffers just as incisively, moving effortlessly from betrayed lover to bullied teen to righteous young man who eventually sees through the Catholic Church’s failings.
Produced here in a commercial Off Broadway berth, “Bare” aspires to catch fire in Gotham after snowballing into a cult hit in regional productions. Hard to say if it’ll succeed, but what is clearer is that in reinventing itself, “Bare” has made most of the right moves.