By Walter G. Meyer
July 22, 2014 (San Diego)--Don’t let the word “opera” in the title make you think this is your grandmother’s type of opera. Borrowing less from Verdi and Wagner than Out and Seventeen, this show is a powerful look at the very real problems of today’s teens. “Bare: a pop opera” is set in a Catholic boarding school and features some kids who have problems. Although most of the show is sung—there is very little dialog—including parts of Romeo and Juliet, the show moves quickly and is easy to follow.
There is a show-with-a-show as the backdrop of “Bare” is the casting of the boarding school’s upcoming performance of Romeo and Juliet; clearly there are parallels to the star-crossed lovers in “bare”.
Director Noah Longton coaxes some gut-wrenching performances out of the actors, some of whom are making the professional stage debuts. Too often in shows about high school students the parts are played by much older actors, requiring greater suspension of disbelief. In “Bare”, the teens are played very believably by a vibrant cast, many of whom are fresh out of high school. What small missteps they may make due to inexperience are more than overridden by their youthful enthusiasm and realism.
The cast is all good, but there are a few standouts. Lead Dylan Mulvaney shines as “Peter,” the boy in love. He seems to be channeling Glee’s Chris Colfer by being overly gay and overly talented. His voice hits the varied notes of a role that you know from the start is doomed to an unhappy ending.
Samantha Vesco dominates the stage in each of her scenes. As she did in “Punk Rock” at ion theatre last year, she masters the role of the girl picked on for her weight and manages to make it gut-wrenching and sympathetic without being cliché.
East County actress Katie Sapper makes her professional San Diego stage debut in “Bare.” She was born and raised in El Cajon, attended Our Lady of Grace Catholic School (where she made her nonprofessional acting debut as the New York Apple in a 5th Grade Christmas Pageant). She went on to Our Lady of Peace High School and is recent graduate of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota where she earned a BA in Musical Theatre. She says he Catholic upbringing neither brought her to the role or frightened her away from it.
She said what drew her to the show was what it offers to audiences. Sapper said, “I think a major message from this play is the feeling of being heard and supported is most important in anyone’s life.” Her character of Ivy she says, “Wants to be looked at for more than her promiscuity, Nadia for more than her size. Peter and Jason want to be supported. The final song, ‘No Voice’ is all about being heard and understood.”
She glows about the cast and crew. “This show has absolutely changed me. I've felt nothing but support from Noah, Tony (musical director Tony Houck), Michael (choreographer Michael Mizerany), and the entire cast and because of that have really been able to push myself and dive into Ivy.”
Longton, who himself looks like he could still be in high school, was able to relate to the cast and the story. He said, “I think everyone can relate to looking for your place in this world. Regardless of race, sexual orientation, or economic status we are always looking for how we fit in. Even more so when we are young.”
Of casting Sapper as the female lead he said, “Katie provided the exact blend I was looking for. It's easy to take Ivy and just think of her as one of those mean girls, I think Katie's ability to bring a sweet side to Ivy really sold her performance. She was always one of our top candidates all the way through the process.”
Indeed, a less sweet Ivy would have made her too unsympathetic for the audience to care when she meets her difficulties. Instead, we are as heartbroken as she is at the consequences of her actions.
Longton said, “I haven't worked with any of the cast members before. Michael and Tony, however, were my first choices from the beginning. I couldn't have done this without either one of them. After working with them on Altar Boyz I knew that I needed them for this project to succeed. They are two of the most talented men I've ever met.”
For this show, Michael Mizerany choreographed everything from a Catholic Mass to a drug-addled “rave” and more, all on the small stage at Diversionary. At times there are 13 actors sharing the space without appearing cramped thanks to the simple, but clever set design.
Mizerany used to teach dance at a studio in La Mesa, but now has his hands full choreographing what seems to be at least half the shows in San Diego. (Next up for him: The Full Monty which opens July 26 at New Village Arts and the Trolley Dances in late September and early October.)
The show is not completely depressing, with much comic relief, most of it coming in the form of the outrageous Sister Chantelle, played with exuberance by Kiani Nelson. And Mulvaney’s “Peter” has some hilarious asides and facial reactions.
By the final sad scene, many audience members were reduced to tears and some were audibly sobbing. But isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do—evoke an emotional response? And perhaps that response will prompt thinking about how we judge and exclude others damages us all.
Bare: a pop opera continues at Diversionary Theater through August 3rd. For more information visit: www.diversionary.org .