Passion counts for a lot in drama, and sincerity counts for a lot plus, and both qualities are in welcome abundance in the Center for Living Arts' presentation of the adolescent-angst musical bare. Another theatrical commitment kept me away during opening weekend, but if you haven't yet caught up with the show, I heartily recommend taking advantage of its three-weekend run; you could conceivably ask for a stronger production, but only a complete boor would dare ask for a more heartfelt one, or one that exuded more enthusiasm and feeling from its clearly, beautifully invested participants.
After last year's staging of Spring Awakening - directed, as was bare, by Dino Hayz - the infectious thrill of the Center's latest teen-themed musical hardly comes as a surprise. Obviously relishing that Broadway smash's controversial nature and meaty characters and demanding score (and, just maybe, their opportunity to publicly sing "Totally F---ed" at the top of their lungs), most of Hayz's student cast members attacked the Awakening material with ballsy, go-for-broke gusto, their occasional bum notes and lapses in focus only momentary impediments to the downbeat exhilaration.
Yet while bare, as written by composers/authors Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, isn't nearly as accomplished as Spring Awakening, this new outing may be an even more affecting experience than last year's Center production. Stripped of much of Awakening's acerbic, nihilistic wit, Hartmere's and Intrabartolo's effort, despite a bunch of effective songs, wears its tortured-youth earnestness on its sleeve, which leads to more than a few awkward and unsubtle passages. (In a late confessional scene, after shaming a priest for his complicity in a tragedy, one of bare's high-schoolers ends his condescending scolding with a soap-opera-ready "I forgive you, Father.") The musical's mostly unadorned candor, though, might be exactly what makes Hayz's offering, and especially its cast, so wonderfully winning. With so little presentational artifice to hide behind, the actors - as the show's title suggests - have almost no choice but to (figuratively) expose themselves here, and as a result, their emotional transparency and vulnerability are oftentimes moving in the extreme.
In outline, and frequently in practice, bare bears a more than passing resemblance to Spring Awakening, as it, too, is a rock- and pop-fueled tale of sexual exploration and confusion set in a strict boarding school, albeit a co-ed Catholic school in present-day America. (Through a line of dialogue that feels like a jokey addition to the script, we're told that the institution is actually housed in Iowa.) Instead of focusing primarily on a pair of heterosexual lovers, however, this musical explores the romance between same-sex roommates: the deeply conflicted Jason (Doug Johnson), who's also, somewhat ashamedly, the campus' resident babe magnet, and the deeply troubled Peter (Adam Kuta), anguished over his own insecurities and Jason's reluctance to fully commit. There's certainly more to the show, including fellow students with hang-ups of their own, a comically inept staging of Romeo & Juliet, and plenty of sardonic insults and sensible advice administered by the school's sassy black nun. (I'd resist this clichéd and potentially demeaning description if the show didn't invite it by giving the character a second-act solo titled "God Don't Make No Trash.") But it's in Jason's and Peter's relationship that bare truly expresses its soul, and in the searching, empathetic performances of Johnson and Kuta, that's expressive soul indeed.
For quite a while, and despite boasting a tonally gorgeous singing voice, Johnson seems almost too subdued as the understandably reticent Jason. The tall, effortlessly charismatic actor's refusal to over-emote is admirable, and it's apparent that Johnson is actually feeling the words he's saying, but on Friday at least, he was so low-key during the production's first act, and early parts of its second, that there were times you could barely hear him even when he was conversing a mere five feet away. (The Center for Living Arts' intimate playing area must be a godsend for those striving for naturalism, but it may also lead to some speaking with less volume than they still need to.) Yet when Jason's world began crumbling around him in Act II, it was as if a switch was suddenly flipped in the performer, and Johnson - particularly on his aching, tear-filled "Once Upon a Time" solo - emerged as a figure of nearly wrenching sadness; both Jason's torment and Johnson's hidden reserves of power stuck up on you and knocked you sideways.
Throughout much of the production, Kuta was Johnson's polar opposite - an actor for whom unfettered emotionalism came almost too easily, and occasionally seemed forced. (Generally speaking, as an audience member, you're less affected by watching performers break down than watching them struggle to not break down.) But from his first minutes on-stage, Kuta demonstrated an absolute, honest understanding of Peter's psyche, and even when his portrayal felt strained or hampered by dialogue and lyrics that were too aggressively on-the-nose, the actor himself was always alert, and, in the end, quite heartrending; sincerity of Kuta's caliber here is something that really can't be faked. Together, Johnson and Kuta make for a supremely touching yin-and-yang duo - their lightly comic physical playfulness in the early scenes was especially well executed - and happily, numerous other talents in bare are giving them all the support any reasonable performers could ask for.
Aaron Lord, whose exuberantly eccentric performance as Spring Awakening's Moritz Stiefel is one of my favorite theatrical memories from 2012, delivers an unfussy, quietly forceful portrayal as the brokenhearted and vindictive Matt, a turn as nicely subtle as Max Moline's is joyously extroverted. (Playing the amped-up drug supplier Lucas, Moline knocks a hilarious, spectacularly confident white-boy-rap number clear out of the park.) Among numerous young women in the orbits of bare's leads, Becca Meumann and Myka Walljasper (both of whose alto crooning is particularly strong here) are utterly beguiling as warring roommates Ivy and Nadia - Meumann with her teasing, teen-sexpot bravada and grave, little-girl-lost isolation, and Walljasper with her heartbreaking melancholy and underplayed, tragicomic hostility (much of it directed at herself). Tina Hayz, who also serves as the show's choreographer and costume/prop designer, scrapes much of the cliché off her role as Peter's mother Claire; in her "Warning" solo, the unaffected, vibrant performer makes you understand the necessity, and cost, behind this woman's deliberate obtuseness. And as the aforementioned Sister who, as conceived, wouldn't be out of place in Nunsense or one of its many sequels, the madly enjoyable Antoinette Holman wholly transcends the built-in limitations of her role, delivering devastating zingers, impassioned vocals, and no-nonsense warmth with equal aplomb.
I could argue with the production's somewhat off-putting blackout structure, as quite a few transitions between numbers - most notably the one between Peter's coming-out attempt "See Me" and Claire's "Warning" response - would have been far more effective had they been accomplished with shifts in light, or in full light, as opposed to occurring in total darkness. (To be fair, the Center's lighting instruments might not allow for dimming.) And while most of Dino Hayz's staging was adept, especially during the compositionally challenging Romeo & Juliet rehearsal scenes, there was, on Friday, unfortunate confusion at moments that begged for clarity; during a climactic tragedy, for instance, you could barely ascertain that it was a tragedy, let alone what its source was. But thanks to Hayz's inspired guidance of his committed, actively present, vocally gifted cast of 18, the Center for Living Arts' latest is still an invigorating piece of theatre, one whose presentational fervor should keep you smiling even when events are at their most somber. You've heard the expression "grin and bear it"? At the Center, you'll bare and grin it.
bare runs at the Center for Living Arts (2008 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island) through February 16, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)788-5433 or visiting Center4Living.com.