Aperio Productions' bare: A Musical at Playhouse in the Park Inspires Rock-Show Applause

Even if the largely teenage cast of bare: A Musical hadn't succeeded in really selling this rather stunning story of naughty Catholic school kids, it would have appeared that they had. That's because the audience for Aperio Productions' loud, rowdy show screamed with joy after every number, as if they were at a rock concert and not a smartly written musical about a couple of gay kids at a boarding school who struggle with issues of faith and nasty teen cliques. They showed up in tiny outfits and hollered their lungs out for Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo's maniacally energetic commentary on teen angst and Catholicism, making it harder to tell just how well the cast was actually doing.

And they were doing just fine, thank you. I was never bored during this two-act's two-plus hours, although when I spotted Nearly Naked Theatre's artistic director Damon Dering in the audience, I wanted to pass him a note reading, "Produce this show at your theater — with better singers!" To be fair, the acting is spot-on from each of the young leads. Jonathan Brian Furedy plays BMOC Jason with a subtle focus that sets him apart from his castmates; his Notre Dame-bound sexy nerd is warm and engaging. He's matched by Rhetta Kampel, who made me like bossy, bitter Nadia with her "Plain Jane Fatass," an angry lament about life as a high school outcast. And Marissa Mishelle pulls off something I've always found nearly impossible: Convincing an audience that the slutty popular girl actually has a soul.

The adults fare better, particularly Wendy Roman, who could teach Whoopi Goldberg a thing or two about playing a sassy, singing nun. But the show belongs to the kids, many of whom appear not to have had any vocal training, all of whom had blown out their voices by the middle of Act Two. I kept reminding myself that this is what teenagers sound like when they think they're alone and are trying out their pipes, and I was fine.

Like High School Musical, bare pays homage to Romeo and Juliet, both in its storyline and its play-within-a-play mini musical, but this is no Disney tween tuner. The kids curse and do drugs at a rave and, at the end of Act One, have sex onstage. The songs are often raunchy (a ditty called "Birthday Bitch" includes the couplet "Your mother was a hooker/Your father was a dick") and Act Two blasts off with a dream sequence depicting a randy gay wedding that explodes into a chorus of bullies in choir robes. Elsewhere on the altar, Sister performs a Motown routine with a pair of feisty backup singers; earlier, we're treated to "Confession," in which kids line up to rattle off their sins: "I got so high I fainted/Sometimes I don't recycle/I finally nailed my girlfriend/I took some extra Nyquil . . ." One needn't be a lapsed Catholic to enjoy all this clever sacrilege, but it helps.

The acoustics at Viad Center are dreadful, but this did nothing to dampen the spirits of the tight seven-piece band, which played with the same commitment afforded to blocking and smart set changes by director Mark Austin. Would that Austin had employed a choreographer here; too often, singers are lined up before us, single file, or left standing stock still, belting solos straight out into the house.

But Austin makes the most of a stylish script, a raucous score, and a lot of would-be singers with nice acting chops. And anything that can keep a houseful of teenagers distracted from their cell phones gets my vote.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela