By Coulson Bingham
Bare, written and composed by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo was originally performed in October of 2000 at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles. It is about the coming-of-age senior year of five high school students at a Catholic boarding school. Knowing their stay in the insular world they’ve always known is drawing to a close, each of them question where they are in their lives and what their futures hold. The story focuses on the hidden love and relationship of two boys: the introverted, artistic Peter, and Jason, the popular jock/golden boy. The story gets up close and personal with the struggles, trials and hardships they push through to keep their relationship hidden but alive, and how their love affects their friends and the people around them.
Director Johnny Hebda cannot think of a better place than Utah to share this incredible story. In so many parts of the country these issues are in the past and in so many religions, homosexuality has been accepted as people’s views change. But here in Utah, the topic couldn’t be more current and applicable. He says, “with debates and conflicts surrounding gay marriage, from the LDS Church’s focus and stance on homosexuality, to the religious influences in the education system–it’s as if Bare was handcrafted specifically for us.”
With much of the emphasis on homosexuality, this remarkable show also addresses current topics such as depression, underage use of drugs and alcohol, teenage pregnancy, bullying and ignorance.
Hebda has known for years that this show needed to come to Utah in order to tell the story in this particular environment. As with any director, he has spent much of the past couple years on the lookout for his perfect cast and encouraged people to audition because the show is not widely known and provided the innate possibility for a difficult casting turnout. After finding his perfect cast, rehearsals began in late October in the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Salt Lake. By Thanksgiving, the show was blocked, choreographed and they were well on their way to a strong show. The blocking was creative and used the space to its best ability and provided some chilling moments with something as simple as a turn of the head, sending the audience into tears. There were subtle hand touches and stolen glances that were true to the characters and the unfortunate, hidden reality of the story. That being said, there were also quite a few times when the blocking felt impersonal to the audience and cut us out of the flow of the story, making it hard to experience certain scenes authentically.
Choreography by Michael Hernandez was a great combination of musical theatre with a hip hop flavor bringing the up-to-date, high school atmosphere into perspective. One of the greatest dance subtleties was directly after witnessing the teens taking drugs before going to the club. The choreography showed the drugs taking effect in their systems and the hallucinations the students were experiencing through their movement, which directly came into play later in the story so you, as an audience member, were able to reflect on the past scenes and the outcome of those situations. In such a small space, it is hard to do choreography with a large cast and not make the audience fear for the performers or make the movement seem small and clumped. At times, the choreography was far too big and moved too much to be safe, making me fear for the actors. It sometimes felt abrasive and very in-your-face, when perhaps the message would have been stronger if the actors implemented more movement instead of actual dancing.
Musical director Anne Puzey flooded the stage with strong vocal moments from the entire cast, as well as provided a large pop ensemble sound that was thrilling to hear. It was incredible to see such a small cast create a large, enjoyable, emotional sound. They were very invested in the music and in telling the story through the vocals, which are the most important part of any pop opera. Erin Royall Carlson, the vocal coach, worked quite a bit with some of the main vocalists and it was very obvious. They had powerful moments of pain and joy that were relayed deep into the audience with the intensity of their performances. However, the music was oftentimes very repetitive and sometimes bits and pieces could have been slowed down for a more emotional effect. While it was beautiful and wonderfully done, there were times, as with the choreography, that the music felt abrasive and as if it was being attacked instead of enjoyed. Many funny or beautiful moments were lost due to speed and a lack of diction from the entire ensemble as well as some lead roles.
Everything from the risers the audience sat on to the light rigging above was built and custom designed for this show with help from master carpenter, Marc Navez. The set, designed by Chase Ramsey, remained for the most of the performance, except for small mobile pieces such as lockers, benches and beds, but every piece was used in multiple ways, providing more efficiency to scene changes and an overall better flow. Amanda Ruth Wilson’s scenic arts design brilliantly portrayed a high school. Dorm room scenes were a simple bed embellished by lights, allowing the freedom to paint a personal picture, adding doors, windows, posters and whatever else to make it feel ultimately more intimate. While lights embellished some scenes, they did not make it easy to enjoy others. The lighting in the theater was very limited due to space and budget and for the most part was adequately used by lighting designer Joe Jenkins. However, there were scenes when the dark spots and shadows on the stage were distracting from the scene and some blocking moments were placed in darkness, pulling away from beautiful scenes. The lights were able to show off the costumes by Nancy Susan Cannon, and she did a great job ensuring that all the pieces were appropriate to the mood and fit the look of the story as well as today’s fashion standards. Everything from the school uniforms to clubbing outfits were well-fitting and described the attitude of each individual character, enhancing their actions.
One of Hebda’s strongest moves was bringing in Bobby Gibson to create a stunning special effect that really brought the audience right into the story. Upon walking in to the theater, one of the first things you notice in the set are flat screen televisions strategically placed with the Bare logo on them. They took the audience right into the middle of the story with photos, tweets, texts, school bulletin announcements, scene and light effects and much more. Being able to participate in the story without having to lift a finger was an interesting and incredible tactic I have never seen. It was definitely an idea that paid off for Hebda.
The role of Peter was played by Ogden native, John Patrick McKenna. Growing up in Utah, serving an LDS Mission and attending Brigham Young University all came as a package deal to McKenna. As with most gay teenagers, his parents knew well before he did and proceeded to put him in counseling and find other avenues to cure him before it got too serious. This caused him to have a lot of issues with depression. While attending BYU as a musical theatre major, he had a very similar experience to his character, finding himself in love with someone behind closed doors because it couldn’t be a public relationship. “We had to pretend it wasn’t a thing and it…It was kind of a nightmare. Not being, you know, who we were…” he said, trailing off. The pain and emotion that he was able to vividly show in his performance came from a real place of heartache and trials. McKenna’s beautiful tenor voice left the audience awestruck from the moment he first graced the stage. He constantly left us wanting more and pulled at every emotion he possibly could. This was his first return to the stage in six years, after switching his major to music production, and it’s amazing that he was ever able to leave. The way he carried himself was custom fit to his part and that of a senior in high school. You’d never guess that this talented man was in his late twenties.
His opposite, Jason, was played remarkably by Brock Dalgleish. In my interview with him, I discovered that not only was Jason his character, but that he is his life story. Growing up in the LDS church with a 4.0 GPA and being Student Body President, he always had to live up to others’ expectations. Reflecting, he said, “I had to live a double life, and it was awful. It got to the point where I got kicked out of my house and so Jason is very close to home.” Casting Dalgleish was a very obvious choice. The very first time he enters the stage into the locker room to change his clothes, an audible gasp spreads through the audience. He IS the everything you would imagine a golden boy/jock to be. He captured that essence not only with his body but with the way he carried himself around his friends and in his private moments. His movements were graceful but masculine and very thought through. As you get into the story, his acting is so well played out that you just want to scream and cry at the fear Jason has of himself, of Peter, and of his “Best Kept Secret.” He enhances the emotion and makes every caressing movement mean more. Both of these incredibly talented actors share a number of duets with one another and each one is better than the first. The chemistry and love felt between them real, bare and so strong it seems that nothing could pull them apart.
What is the Football Captain without the most popular girl in school? We see this question brought to life by Ivy (Emilie Starr), the quick-witted, mean girl of Saint Cecillia’s Boarding School. Behind every bully is a person and inside that person is a hardship, and that is really the message Starr brings to this character. From the moment she is introduced, I saw her character laid out like a magazine. Her character development was so thorough that I really could see the thought behind every move. “I just drew the character from the text of the play and just filled in the blanks. Ivy is a little bit of all of us. Trying to be better than everybody because that’s what you want to be even though you know that you’re not,” she said, getting emotional. Along with that incredible depth to her character, her vocals were stunning. She opened up her mouth and her soul came pouring out in a river of sweet melodies and harsh pain. As the story develops, she lets down her guard as the queen and starts to reveal a layer of insecurities and the tortured pain she feels from Jason’s deceit. As a professional actress, she has had years of training it shows.
The ensemble was one of the strongest I have ever seen. They constantly had a motive and something to be doing that was true to the story and to each individual character while not upstaging the action. They had a remarkable diversity and energy. Every single actor was a different person at that school with a different story to tell and those really came across. Being able to get involved in the whole picture instead of just always focusing on one small group really enhanced the high school atmosphere.
This story is funny, emotional, relatable and 100% worth going to. As with any show, there were some rough moments, but those were limited. The heart and soul of this show is played so well it is next to impossible to walk away without tears. Hebda certainly was right when he said Utah needed this one. I strongly endorse this show and will most definitely be in the audience again. Everyone, no matter who they are, needs to learn that “if you hide from yourself or be someone else for someone else’s sake, that is the greatest mistake.”
This production of Bare has partnered with the OUTreach resource center, a non-profit collection of youth resource centers dedicated to transforming communities and saving lives through programs promoting positive outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness, family rejection, or victimization. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT and anyone under the age of 18 cannot stay at a normal homeless shelter past 5:00 PM. OUTreach is devoted to not just bringing kids and teens in and giving them a place to stay, but teaching them and turning them into healthy adults with jobs and degrees and actually bringing them out of homelessness for good. Fifteen percent of ticket sales will go directly to OUTreach and continuing to help Utah teens back on their feet.
Bare continues to play through January 31 at the Sugar Space Arts Warehouse 130 South 800 West, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Visit www.utahrep.org/tickets/ to purchase tickets.
Visit OUTreach at http://www.outreachresourcecenters.org/ to donate or for more info.
Due to profanity, sexual content and crude humor, I give this show an “R” rating. While I do think it could be appropriate for people over 16 it is best suited for mature audiences.