Review: Pandora’s Pop Opera ‘Bare’ a Real Heartbreaker

Sexually active teens getting high under the not-so-watchful eye of a Catholic boarding school sounds like a salacious premise, but Pandora Productions’ pop opera “Bare” is a sweet heartbreaker about emotionally neglected teens who just want someone to love, darn it.

The kids at St. Cecilia’s aren’t terribly interested in the church’s authority, but they are desperately seeking a close relationship with God. Mostly, they want to be seen and heard for who they truly are, and all of their decisions are guided by that desire.

Written by Jon Hartmere, Jr. (book and lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (book and music), “Bare” opened Thursday in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Bingham Theater, where it runs through May 20. Pandora’s artistic director Michael J. Drury directs.

Jason Brent Button plays Jason, the handsome over-achiever all the girls—including the campus It Girl Ivy (Katie Nuss)—want to date. But at the top of the show, Jason only has eyes for his roommate Peter (Robbie Lewis), a sweet moppet of an altar boy who just wants to kiss his boyfriend in front of other people, even though pragmatic Jason thinks they should keep their relationship “the best-kept secret.” Jason’s confusion lands him in Ivy’s bed with disastrous consequences for all.

Lewis and Nuss are both devastating talents, completely in charge of their characters’ vulnerabilities and strengths. Both have strong voices and act convincingly through their songs, even when the material dips into maudlin territory (though I suppose if anyone’s going to sing a song called “Touch My Soul” without a trace of irony, it’s a 17-year-old girl).

Musically, the numbers with a little attitude are the strongest. Kate Holland takes the underappreciated role of Jason’s sarcastic sister and runs with it, and her three songs are among the show’s highlights, especially the snarky, cello-backed “Spring.” Tymika Prince as feisty nun Sister Chantelle saves the day twice, first as Peter’s vision of a Dianna Ross-styled Virgin Mary (“911! Emergency!”) and again when she consoles him with “God Don’t Make No Trash.”

Some elements of the plot feel a bit like a time capsule from the late Nineties–if kids still go to raves, they probably don’t rap about them, though Neill Robertson (campus drug dealer Lucas) sells that number with everything he has, making me wish he had a larger role.

Choreographer Christephor Gilbert could have worked the cast a bit harder. Company numbers enjoy a kinetic energy, but the show’s many solos and duets often leave the actors on stage with little to do but stand there and sing. A more aggressive staging could keep the dramatic tension from flagging in those scenes.

Musicals can be tricky for Louisville’s smaller companies to cast, due in part to a small pool of available triple-threat performers–those who can act, sing and dance equally well often end up cast in better-paying, longer-running shows. Add the additional complicating layer of finding adult performers who can convincingly play teenagers and the pool gets a little smaller.

Button (though very capable in the role) looks and acts about a decade older than the rest of the teen characters, which ends up doing a great disservice to the emotional arc of the play. Jason is a confused kid, trying to please everyone he loves–his demanding parents, church leaders, the boyfriend he loves, the girl who offers him a glimpse of what a straight life could offer. But Button’s relative maturity makes him seem old enough to know better, so when his character blows off Ivy or pushes Peter away, it doesn’t play like a sympathetic kid fumbling for the right path. He comes off like that jerky older guy insecure kids like them might have dated (and survived) in high school, and it undermines the tragic ending of the play.

On opening night, sound issues kept several numbers from reaching their potential. In several numbers, lower voices were obscured by the music, and the sound levels could also have been behind some performers’ difficulties with staying in tune. These wrinkles aren’t necessarily fatal flaws, though, and could easily be ironed out for the rest of the run.

Karl Anderson’s set is sparse but effective. Three stained glass windows hang throughout the show as a reminder of the influence both authority and faith have on the kids’ lives, and Theresa Bagan’s lighting design makes solid use of them as well.

Pandora announced their next season on opening night. Starting with September’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” all 2012-13 productions will take place at the Henry Clay Theatre.

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