Thursday, March 11, 2010

Actors 'Bare' all in pop opera

Growing up is never easy. Adding the judging eyes and ears of a Catholic school only makes it worse. “Bare: The Pop Opera,” which opens Thursday, March 11, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. knows this all too well.

Following on the heels of M&D Productions' youth musical productions like “Godspell” and “Footloose,” “Bare” is perhaps the most ambitious show the company has attempted with a largely high-school-age cast. The students in the cast reach the higher bar that director Ken Martin has set for them.

“Bare” revolves around the story of Jason (Billy Cavanaugh) and Peter (Kyle Mulcahy), two gay teenagers struggling with understanding and accepting their feelings. Peter doesn't want to keep it a secret anymore, but Jason fears the repercussions of letting the world know. When Ivy (Courtney Phelps) falls in love with Jason it becomes a chance for so-called normalcy.

Although the show has the ongoing debate of sexuality and the Christian faith at its center, the emotions this struggle creates are universal to the experience of growing up. The show's book by John Hartmere and Damon Intabartolo knowingly remembers and re-creates the teen angst of not knowing one's place and the desire to belong and be understood. The characters in “Bare” battle with being true to themselves even as they try to find out who that self is.

Yes, this is an opera in the sense that nearly every line is sung, but the music is not that of a traditional opera. This is very much based in the traditions of pop music with influences from Motown. The show features 36 songs. This would be a daunting task for trained professionals, let alone young performers who are still learning. Musical director Tracy Gardner worked extensively with the cast and has got them to an impressively high level of performance.

The leads are very strong. Mulcahy so badly wanted to play this role that he has been commuting three hours one-way from Franklin Pierce University to play Peter. His passion and commitment to the role absolutely comes across in every moment he is on stage. He isn't afraid to be open and vulnerable especially on songs like “Role of a Lifetime” and “Ever After.”

Cavanaugh, who, as the program notes, had only ever sung in his bathroom, very nearly matches Mulcahy. He makes Jason's struggle with his identity feel authentic. The perfect straight act that Jason presents begins to crumble and Cavanaugh plays that conflict well.

Phelps, who last year was the female lead in “Footloose,” has taken a massive step forward as a singer and has several powerhouse moments. She is particularly strong on “All Grown Up," where she taps into painful, raw emotions.

Jessica Pappalardo as Jason's sarcastic loner sister gets some of the best lines in a show that is full of funny lyrics that range from clever to crass. In songs like “Plain Jane Fat Ass," she gets the snarky self-deprecation just right.

Rae McCarey get the juicy role of Sister Chantelle and plays her to the hilt as a tough soul sister. In a dream sequence she comes out as a Mother Mary who is more likely to be on her way to Vegas than Bethlehem. McCarey, flanked by a couple of angel backup singers (Amy-Nicole Smullen and Janette Kondrat), belts out the showstopping “911! Emergency.” She also shines on “God Don't Make No Trash.”

Other highlights include Kelly Karuzis, as Peter's mother, delivering the heartbreaking “Warning,” and Ged Owen, as the student drug connection, performing an amusing rap.

This is a show that will have you laughing heartily one moment and dabbing away tears the next. This is a Kleenex show, for sure, but it is also one that earns every single tear.

Tickets are $15. For reservations call 662-7591.

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