That the spring production at St. Cecilia’s Boarding School is Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a cruel irony for Peter and Jason. Young, gay and in love, they are star-crossed indeed, with not Montagues and Capulets hovering over them but rather the specters of disappointed or disapproving parents and, harsher still, the intolerance of the Catholic Church. Worse yet for Jason, he has been cast in the role of Romeo, and his Juliet is a schoolgirl who loves him without realizing he can not in his heart love her back.
So the world turns in Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s musical “bare: a pop opera,” making its San Diego premiere at Diversionary Theatre under the direction of Noah Longton. With a cast of 15 and four musicians playing from the rafters, “bare” surely ranks as one of the most ambitious productions the University Heights theater, which is currently in search of its new artistic director, has ever staged. Its compact space is variously transformed from a church with pulpit and “stained glass window” to a drab dorm room to the site of a rave complete with frenetic dancers wielding glow sticks. (Credit choreographer Michael Mizerany, who has worked on previous Diversionary projects, for seamlessly moving this large cast around, whether in techno-dance or church-procession mode.)
Though all the familiar Catholic school types are here – the staunch, dogmatic priest; the spunky nun who cracks wise; the nerd-boy in thick glasses; the overweight girl in thicker glasses who never gets a prime part in the play; the tormented girl of easy virtue – “bare” is Peter and Jason’s story. Peter (simultaneously brave and vulnerable) and Jason (macho but afraid in a little boy way, and bitterly conflicted) yearn for each other, but as with Romeo and Juliet, the fates seem to conspire against them. Jason (Charlie Gange) does not possess Peter’s (Dylan Mulvaney) courage about being “out,” and, waging a tug-o-war in his own soul, he succumbs to the seductions of the aforementioned girl of easy virtue, Ivy (Katie Sapper), with dramatic consequences for all in the triangle.
This show is not an opera in the purest sense, but most of the narrative is sung, with dialogue reserved for a few select confrontations between Peter and Jason as they try to sort out their future. Intrabartolo wrote the music and Hartmere the lyrics to well over 30 songs, most of them just a couple of minutes long and a handful disposable. But there are clear highlights: Peter’s sensitivity shines through on the Act 1 “You & I,” with Jason reciprocating, in a more tortured fashion, in the second act’s “Once Upon A Time.” It is Samantha Vesco, as Jason’s wallflower sister Nadia, who strikes the most painful emotional chord, on the forlorn “A Quiet Night at Home,” while also able to sardonically denounce that idealized season for young love, on “Spring.” Memorable too is Sister Chantelle (Kiani Nelson) fronting a Supremes-like crowd-pleaser, “911/Emergency.”
Whoever Diversionary ultimately selects as its new artistic director (Todd Nelms is serving in the interim) would be wise to dare, as with “bare,” on the side of enterprising.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.