allie macdonald & ryan henwood
If you care about the future of musical theatre in Halifax you need to head immediately down to the Neptune Studio Theatre and check out left of centre’s production of Bare: A Pop Opera. The cast is filled with emerging triple threat performers who are locally based and they offer up gigantic rays of hope for those dying to see more professional-caliber musical theatre in this city and those who believe it’s time for Neptune Theatre to step up and start giving real opportunities to the performers in the community it was built to serve.
Bare, written by Jon Hartmere (lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (music) opened at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles in 2004, it had its Canadian premiere at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto in 2009 and it will open Off-Broadway at New World Stages this December. It tells the story of Peter and Jason, star-crossed lovers at a Catholic Boarding School in a small town in Republican America. As a show Bare is a little problematic, but that almost doesn’t matter because this production is saturated with so many excellent performances, infectious energy and Spring Awakening-style choreography that left me wanting to cheer.
Every single person in this cast, all fifteen of them, is someone to watch for; there is not a weak link among them. Anders Balderston and Avery Brennan have gorgeous, strong voices that soar into the crowd and I wanted the chance to hear more from them. Ann Doyle, as Claire, Peter’s mother, broke my heart with one look at the end of the show while she was comforting her son and I wanted more opportunity for her to delve as deep as I know she can into her character. Taylor Long plays Matt, a sort of Eponine character who oscillates from sweetness to bullying depending on how heartbroken he is over his unrequited love for Ivy. He is great at keeping Matt’s humanity and his pain at the forefront so we see the complexity behind his choice to finally hurl homophobic slurs at Jason. Rebecca Guilderson gives great sass and deep melancholy as Jason’s twin sister Nadia and belts the shit out of one of the show’s best songs, “Plain Jane Fatass.” Even while padded Guilderson never seems big enough to be so obsessed with her weight, although perhaps that’s the point. Stephanie Hood plays Ivy and her voice is gorgeous and effortless. She is really effective at playing a character whose brazen, fun-loving veneer is protecting a hollow vulnerability that keeps peeking through. Hood is also only sixteen years old, which will probably blow your mind. Ryan Henwood, who plays Peter, is also still in High School, and he brings so much fragility and vulnerability to this character, his rawness is heart-rending and powerfully earnest. Allie Macdonald plays Jason and his chemistry with Henwood is both electric and sweet. He is the closeted Melchoir to Peter’s Moritz and I liked how it was so clear throughout that Jason is continually trying to do the right thing, despite getting thwarted at every turn. And then, there’s Helena Pipe, who is a rock star playing Sister Chantelle, bursting with attitude and huge powerhouse production numbers which gives an emotionally bleak story a well-need burst of humour. Pipe got a hearty round of applause on all her exits; this girl is going places!!
When all fifteen of them sing together in harmony, it is heavenly. The choreography by Karla Hodge, Ashley Rowsell, Stephane Gaudet and Destiny Leblanc is the best that I have seen in a musical outside of Neptune Theatre’s Mainstage in years. If George Pothitos casts his musicals primarily from Toronto because he thinks that’s where all the triple threats are, he needs to take a look at what’s happening next door because all these performers can dance proficiently and their stage presence is captivating.
As a musical, I think that these performers deserve better from Bare’s writers. Sort of a mixture of Spring Awakening and Rent, but without the musical sophistication of either, the characters in Bare seem boxed in by the show’s sung-through structure and tend to spell out how they are feeling and what they’re thinking rather than being able to communicate with one another as teenagers or to experience things more subtly. The female roles are especially frustrating because, while both Nadia and Ivy have the potential to be three dimensional characters in a lot of emotional turmoil, the writers don’t let them grow or to find any depth or individuality beyond the clichéd High School whore and the fat angry chick who hates everything. I found this especially maddening because there is so much opportunity for interesting choices in the writing- the friendship between Nadia and Jason, for example, or how Ivy’s relationship with Jason is different from her relationship with Matt. I know these fifteen performers have the ability to sink their teeth into meatier characters and I wanted better for them from Hartmere and Intrabartolo.
Regardless, left of centre’s production of Bare is one that everyone in Halifax should see because it is a proud testament to the talent that we have right here in this city and this province right now and the future for us looks very, very bright.
Bare plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) until Sunday, July 29th, 2012. Shows are at 8:00pm. Tickets are $15.00 (plus tax) for students and $18.00 (plus tax) for adults and can be purchased at this website or at the Neptune Studio Theatre Box Office.