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Preaching to The Converted

Bare Sings a Familiar Song

Amy Jones
Kevin Korczynski Leans Into Madonna Refugia

By John Barry | Posted 8/20/2008

Bare: The Musical

Book by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo, music by Damon Intrabartolo, lyrics by Jon Hartmere

At Theatre Project through Aug. 31

On the wall to Dave Eske's set for Bare: The Musical at Theatre Project, there's a time warp going on. There's a poster of Pat Benatar, a playbill to Rent, and, finally, a playbill for Hairspray. And that should give you a little idea about what St. Cecilia's Boarding School is like. The time is listed as "now," but make no mistake: This is about a grown-up playwright remembering a past life.

Unlike most Catholic boarding schools, St. Cecilia's is coed. The choir director, Sister Chantelle (Kelli Blackwell), is a slightly in-your-face Oprah figure who, in the play's most transparent applause line, reminds us that "In the heart of every gay male, there's a black woman." She may not be the primary character, but she is the motivating force behind the play's mission: driving in the point that "it ain't a rainbow without the pink."

The characters who get rolled out to prove the point are rote. Peter (Kevin Bender) is a gay high-school senior who is sensitive, honest, vulnerable, and waiting for spring break to out himself. He's fallen in love with Jason (Kevin Korczynski), who is dashing, manipulative, and, at least to most people, straight. He's not, however, and that's where the musical's primary conflict enters the picture: Don't ask, don't tell? Or let it all out? And then, in the play's signature twist, this gets played out against the backdrop of a high-school production of Romeo and Juliet. Just so you get the idea.

The fact that the Broadway-like Bare got jammed into the small space of Theatre Project might make this swarming choreography even more remarkable, since the cast can carry it off. But director James Howard does whatever he can to replicate the big experience, even to the point of having the characters wear head mics. Few corners are cut, and the only thing holding it back are limitations of time and space.

In short, Bare is anything but bare; though there's no full frontal nudity, in case you wondering. In fact, this musical--which ran off-Broadway--is layered with mood-music emotions, with an additional dollop of thematic whipped cream for good measure. Book writers Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo have their moments--especially when they get to the rousing "One" at the end of the first act. But Hartmere loses his sense of humor entirely when getting to the core theme of self-discovery, almost to the point where you think he based this story on something that happened to him. Instead of celebrating it, he has infused sexual self-awareness with Catholic dogmatism, directed toward a target audience of the converted. It's an accomplishment, to be sure, but not a liberating one.

The story line, in short, is a dud and, perhaps, a bit drawn out, but whenever this talented cast gets out of the confession box they shine. The spotlight ogles Korczynski's Jason. As the star senior, Jason is the guy whom all the girls, and one of the guys, are in love with, and Korczynski quickly gets beyond the shallow premise. His performance is charismatic and unforced as Jason bounces back those vibrations of desire that are set off around him. Once characters, female or male, get a little too entwined with him, his uneasiness is gently exposed. Korczynski manages to keep the tension going by walking that careful, uncomfortable line even when the musical around him sloshes a little.

As Peter, Bender has the task of being completely, head-over-heels in love with Jason--just like the writers, director, and the lighting. That gets to be a little draining, but Bender's talents are put on display as he negotiates Peter's relationship with his mother, given an excellent performance by Esther Covington. As a somewhat ineffectual priest, Jason Wilson plays a mentor for confused teenagers in a performance that reminds us that in every priest is a confused teenager. As Phoebe, Stacey Eckler invests her character with a dollop of self-doubt that grows larger as the play progresses. And Kristen Zwobot brings down the house with the show's most memorable tune, "Plain Jane Fat Ass," in which her character revels in the considerable burden placed on her shoulders and her feet.

The energy and ambition of the production are really appealing, and all involved have done a great deal with the musical itself. And you can't argue with the message--but if that's the virtue of this musical, it's also what weighs it down.

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