SALT LAKE CITY — Many musicals feel the same. It’s not musical’s fault they are designed to be big broad crowd pleasers. But the more musicals I see the more they start to feel rote, which is why it’s so special when a musical comes along that makes me sit up and take notice. Bare, with music by Damon Intrabartolo and lyrics by Jon Hartmere, is just such a musical. Utah Repertory Theater’s production of Bare, directed by Johnny Hebda, is full of raw electricity, rage, humor, and incredibly talented actors and singers.
Bare is the story of a Peter, a student at a Catholic boarding school who is struggling to figure out how to reconcile his homosexuality with his faith. He is in a relationship with Jason, the golden boy of the school, but as he begins to embrace his sexuality Jason insists that they keep it secret. The students struggles and relationships happen in and around the high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
The set design by Chase Ramsey makes use of several TV screens that are incorporated into the set. These screens make it clear where the scene is taking place without having to make any major set changes. There are several different locations in this show and the ability to move swiftly between these locations helped keep the show on its toes and not feel bogged down by endless scene changes. An elegant set and the use of the video screens allowed one space to represent any space. The screens also serve as a way to show how the students are interacting with each other on text and social media.
Costume designer Nancy Susan Cannon used color as a way to infuse the catholic school uniform with meaning and clues to the character’s journey throughout the play. It allowed for creativity and character expression in a production where everyone is wearing school uniforms. The choreography by Michael Hernandez is crisp and energetic, especially during the song “Confession.” The choreography also helps reinforce the themes of the musical, like in the first number “Epiphany” when the chorus forms lines that are closing in and restricting Peter.
The production rests squarely on the shoulders of John Patrick McKenna in the role of Peter. McKenna has a pure soaring voice, and imbues his character with vulnerability. It is difficult to choose just one scene or song as a stand out, because he spends so much time on stage. From the excitement of first love, to the fear of coming out to his mother, the emotions he expresses on stage always felt honest. I especially enjoyed his performance of “Are You There” in which he drunkenly comes out to Matt, played by Thomas Kulkus. It’s a subtle moment, but McKenna does a great job of expressing the fear and relief of finally expressing his secret. It was a pleasure to watch such a confident powerful male performance.
None of the characters were portrayed as one-note stereotypes. Every character had a story, and the actors played to the complexity of their characters. Peter’s mother, who is having difficulty accepting her son’s homosexuality, is not shown as the unsupportive parent who just doesn’t understand. She’s another person, just as unsure as the students of how to navigate the complexities and surprises of life. Shalee Mortensen Schmidt does a magnificent job in the song “Warning” showing that acceptance is not a light switch that can just be turned on. Rather, it is something that she needs to work on, but her love for him never wavers.
The love story between Peter and Jason is front and center, but they’re not the only ones who are let down by the conservative ideas of the community that they find themselves in. There’s Nadya (played by Caroline Crow) who does not fit into the traditional idea of beauty. She feels shoved to the outside of high school society, and no amount of praying is making her feel like she is getting any closer to belonging. In the performance I saw Crow was called in at the last minute to take over the role of Nadya for another actress who had an emergency. Yet, Crow did a magnificent job imbuing the character with a fierce and witty rage that is hiding a lot of hurt, despite the short rehearsal time. I hope to see her soon in a role that she had more preparation for for, because if this is what she is capable at short notice, I can’t imagine what she could do with proper rehearsal time.
Nadya’s foil, played by Emilie Starr, is Ivy, who is referred to in the play as the school slut. She wants to be seen for who she really is beyond her sexual exploits. Starr brings a heartbreaking level of raw teenage earnestness to the stage, and she sings “All Grown Up” with explosive anger and fear. Few performances can match it on a Utah stage.
Utah Repertory Theater’s production of Bare is beautiful to watch, and a story that is particularly relevant to Utah audiences. So far every production has sold out, so be sure and get your tickets ahead of time. Potential audience members should be aware of that the production does contain strong language, and depictions of teen drug use and sex.