Theatre Review: Bare: a pop opera – a knowing exploration of teen challenges

I have a confession to make. In the desire for full disclosure before you read this review, you should know I am a recovering Catholic.  With that out of the way, I can now say that Bare, currently on stage at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island, takes risks and delivers.

A coming of age story for a group of senior high school students at a Catholic boarding school, Bare is not your typical  musical theatre fare, touching on such subjects of homosexuality, drug use and teen pregnancy in a sometimes dark view of adolescence.  Wrapped around these universal teen issues is a church that is at most times unyielding in its beliefs, causing confusion and angst for these kids coming to the discovery of who they are.

In its central theme, Bare presents one of those Catholic oil and water subjects, reconciling being gay with the teachings of the church.  Braedon Cox and Lucas Blaney do well as the secretly gay students, Peter and Jason.  Both have tremendous voices and there is a real connection between them.  Blaney is particularly good here as he struggles to reconcile his feelings for Peter and his perception of how the church and those around him would judge if they knew his secret.  Cox excels in a heart-wrenching “See Me” in act two where he attempts to come out by telephone to his mother (Nancy von Euw).

But while Cox and Blaney may be the stars of this show, it was Emma Leigh Hillier as Jason’s sister Nadia who encapsulates the teen angst playing out here, as if speaking for all of us that have felt her pain growing up.  In “Plain Jane Fat Girl”, Nadia longs to be slim and popular like her roommate Ivy (Lena Dabrusin); clutching at her stomach in disgust at the rolls, she struggles as her outward appearance turns her into an angry young lady.  Auditioning for the school’s production of Romeo & Juliet, she can’t understand why it is always the pretty girls that land the role of Juliet and she gets Nurse and in “A Quiet Night at Home”, Hillier provides a beautiful universal portrayal of the unpopular kid.

The cast of the Fighting Chance Productions' presentation of bare: a pop opera
The cast of the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Bare: A Pop Opera.

Other stand-outs include Jennifer Suratos as the straight-talking Sister Chantelle and Nancy von Euw as Peter’s mother.  Suratos, who did so well in Fighting Chance’s The Wiz, continues to show she is a real talent, giving us  a couple of the shows more upbeat numbers including a very funny turn as the Virgin Mary in “911! Emergency” and as Peter’s one ally in the church with “God Don’t Make No Trash”.  Von Euw brings a real conflict to the mother that knows, but isn’t ready to admit to herself, the truth about her son.  Immediately following her phone call with Peter where he attempts to come out to her, von Euw gives us a powerful “Warning”, refusing to admit she knew this day was coming.

Director Ryan Mooney keeps the show moving at a brisk pace but sometimes that briskness translated into such abrupt endings to scenes that the actors appeared to drop out of character as the lights started to fade and they collectively began thinking about where they should be next.  At times things felt crowded on the small stage but set designer Rachel Duffy provides a number of levels with scaffolding to help.  Mark Eugster’s lighting seemed to be stymied though by Duffy’s set, making lighting the upper tier difficult, especially with such liberal use of follow spots.  Costume designer Oriana Camporese’s boarding school uniforms are spot-on and it was great fun to see the small embellishments that helped to individualize each character. Sound was variable through the show and music director Caitlin Hayes conducted a tight little orchestra attacking the score with finesse.

As the show progresses it is no secret that writers Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo have some deep seeded feelings about the Catholic Church and it does become a little one-note in its exploration of the issues as they relate to Catholicism.  The writers do shy away from any deep exploration of the church’s teachings and how these students reconcile them within the context of their own lives, although to be fair the Church doctrine relies heavily on blind faith from its followers.  I suspect some Catholics could be offended by what appears to be a heavy-handed view of their church, but then they are probably not the target market for this piece anyway (although they should be).

Bare’s knowing exploration of teen challenges, coupled with the solid presentation from the Fighting Chance Productions company, this a powerful piece.  While it may sadly become another show preaching to the choir, it’s okay to be reminded we’ve all been there and, to borrow a phrase, it does get better.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, I have a backlog of about a gazillion Hail Mary’s to recite.

4 Out of 5 Stars Bare: A Pop Opera

Book and lyrics by Jon Hartmere, Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo.  Lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr. Music by Damon Intrabartolo. Directed by Ryan Mooney. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation. On stage at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island through August 13, 2011.  Visit for more information.

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