Chicago Theatre Review
Church and Sexuality /Souls Bared
Bare: A Pop Opera – Refuge Theater Project at Epworth United Methodist Church
In the current rendition of this 2000 musical by Damon Instrabartolo and Jon Hartmere, its all about the found church space. As I sat in my pew, I thought, “It’s a church. It will be nice to see a show in this setting.” What I didn’t realize at the time is how much the church setting, not only accented the story line; but at the same time, faded into the story like the cover of a good (real) book. The action takes place everywhere among the church. The pews, the choir loft, the aisles are all enthusiastically used. It is effective and well done. It was sometimes uncomfortable seeing sexuality played out under a giant cross.
The musical sounds that fills the church is delightful as well.
The young and talented cast brings a beautiful blended sound to the show. Some microphone problems occurred and sometimes the lyrics got muffled when the cast was moving and dancing. But when the ensemble came together for some of the more solemn numbers, I got goosebumps. There were some solo numbers that were outstanding. Molly Coleman as Ivy singing “All Grown Up” and Christopher Ratliff’s Jason tender “Once Upon a Time” were show stoppers.
This young and talented cast sang and acted with great commitment and honesty. They were all the right ages and the voices were all very strong. Some microphone cues seemed slow at first, but they managed to master the board by the end.
I thoroughly enjoyed the musical numbers and the musical in general. The band was fantastic. Thank you Michael Evans. There are a fair number of songs of course, it is a pop opera. I think the pacing was sometimes to blame when it came to the length of the show. It would be hard to take any numbers out, but a quicker recovery between scenes and songs might help.
As far as the book goes, it does not feel contemporary. That is to say it doesn’t feels wrong either. The story is a good one, and anyone who grew up gay with catholic church at your heals will appreciate the conflicting emotions of Bare’s two main characters. The story is a simple one of love, rebellion against authority, and all set with the backdrop of St. Cecilia’s Boarding School. The love part is not so simple. High school’s awkward age, unsure sexual feelings, and the churches unbending rules move our characters to desperate measures and what seem like illogical choices.
Peter (well played by Lewis Rawlinson) is in love with Jason. Jason cannot reconcile his love for Peter. He must prove to himself he is straight for school and church. He befriends and beds Ivy with complicated results.(The scene and song was reminiscent of Spring Awakening, just to put it in context.) Ryan Armstrong’s Matt was marked and sincere. Ryan has a beautiful voice. Matt’s attempts to woo Ivy but are thwarted by Jason. Matt is frustrated and ultimately outs Peter and Jason’s somewhat hidden relationship at school.
Other students fill the halls, Jason’s plus size sister Nadia feels an outsider at school. She address this straight away in the song “Plain Jane Fatass” Gina Francesa has the pipes to fill the space even with mic problems. She sold every song.
Another stand out is A Nikki Greenlee as Sister Chantelle and the BVM. She has some of the best lines in the show. She brought energy and a lightness when needed.
Shaun Baer as the dark and unrelenting priest brings his rich voice and foreboding presence to mark the churches omnipresent importance to these young minds.
The overall impact of this show rings so true. These desperate young people driven to choices by unrelenting beliefs and fear. They receive no help from the church they believe in and so they are thrust into confusion.
This show works well and will resonate with audiences. It is not perfect, but there is something about it being in the church, with lovely voices, and the contemplative nature of the story that will bring you a melancholy satisfaction.
Refuge Theatre Project has a promising future.
Bare runs through November 6 at Epworth United Methodist Church. 5253 N Kenmore Ave. Tickets available online at www. refugetheatre.com
Reviewed by Lazlo Collins
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.