Off-Broadway musicals often provide audiences with a unique experience. Their raw and intimate sensibility is usually shed when some productions transfer to Broadway. However – despite the quality of their books and scores – many never do. As evidenced by works such as the original production of “Little Shop of Horrors” or last decade’s “Heathers” sensation, the best of the bunch develop fierce cult followings. The same can be said for Damon Intrabartolo’s and Jon Hartmere’s “Bare: A Pop Opera,” running this month at CAP Merrick.
The musical contains over 30 compositions that tell a romantic and tragic coming-of-age story. The plot revolves around the relationship between Peter and Jason, roommates at a Catholic boarding school who have fallen in love. Their romance becomes increasingly precarious as Peter struggles with Jason’s fear of being discovered by their peers – including his girlfriend.
Nick Castello and Liam Attridge give professional caliber performances as Peter and Jason, respectively. Mr. Castello’s tenor, often seamlessly shifting into a falsetto as dictated by the challenging score, rivals coveted talent I’ve seen on Broadway stages. Mr. Attridge expertly conveys Jason’s internal conflict and skillfully integrates that emotion into his powerful vocals. Not once do we doubt their established history and their moving performances keep us immersed in the story. Veteran CAP choreographer, director, and performer Ryan Lane portrays Peter for alternating performances while Sean Ryan performs the role of Jason.
The musical also depicts the struggles of Nadia and Ivy, Jason’s sister and girlfriend. The two young women are presented as foils – while Ivy is viewed as beautiful and popular, Nadia struggles with her body image and overall self-esteem. Colleen Lamberti executes Nadia’s witty dialogue with the right amount of bite – displayed in the angsty and bluntly entertaining “Plain Jane Fat Ass,” but also projects a palpable vulnerability in introspective moments like “A Quite Night at Home.” Similarly, belting moments are equally impressive as her ballad. Chrissy Ganci, last seen in CAP’s production of “Matilda” at their Syosset location, performs the role on alternating performances.
Meanwhile, Ivy – first presented as a stereotypical “mean girl” type – offers the opportunity for Jackie Rizzo, who shares the role with Kathryn Paidoussis, to show her range as her character evolves. Ms. Rizzo’s raw and poignant performance of “All Grown Up” allows us to see her fragility beneath the front she puts up for her peers.
Those peers are played by an immensely talented ensemble of young actors. Together, their vocals unite to attack the late Mr. Intrabartolo’s pop/rock compositions while also blending as a cohesive and heavenly unit for the softer hymn-inspired scenes. I commend each member of the cast for carving out a distinct personality and projecting them consistently throughout the show. Rich Giordano as Jason’s close friend Matt gives a multi-layered performance, providing depth to a character that could become flat in the wrong hands. Jared Grossman plays the same role in alternating performances. Warren Tierney is another standout, delighting the audience with an impressive rap segment.
One of the most memorable characters is embodied by the enchanting Janelle Primm as Sister Chantelle, a school administrator who won’t refrain from taking her charges down a peg or two. The role allows her to utilize her excellent comedic timing – often displayed while attempting to organize a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Ms. Primm also leads the dream sequence “911 Emergency” a la The Supremes with her powerhouse vocals. And her range as an actress is vast, showcased in her ability to give Peter some comfort as an ally in a tender scene.
Madelin Dezego and Tony Frangipane, the director of the production, also serve the book well portraying Claire, Peter’s mother, and a priest at the school, respectively. Ms. Dezego paints a portrait of a woman rejecting her son’s sexuality despite her love for him. Mr. Frangipane also delivers in a disturbing confessional scene, shedding light on a prejudice that unfortunately remains relevant. Danielle Giusto Maqsood and Jason Donohue play Claire and the priest on alternating performances.
With a running time over 2 hours and 45 minutes, a poorly constructed production of “Bare” could easily flounder. However, Mr. Frangipane’s directorial choices keeps the musical visually engaging and flowing. Although the show is inherently more movement based, Alyssa Caracciola’s choreography impresses – notably during the aforementioned “911 Emergency” and the rave sequence “Rolling,” where Mr. Frangipane’s radiant lighting design transforms the stage into a neon wonderland.
“Bare: A Pop Opera” is not without its faults. The narrative can be meandering at times and a number of songs are not particularly memorable. However, CAP Merrick is the perfect environment for this intimate, personal piece of theatre to showcase the musical’s strengths with a first-rate cast and production team and irrefutable passion.
“Bare: A Pop Opera” runs until March 1. Visit CAP Merrick’s website for tickets.
Photos by Jaime Zahl