The Next Cult Musical? Bare: A Pop Opera
Bare: A Pop Opera has returned to London in a new production, but can it earn cult-status among dedicated musical theatre audiences?
It’s Summer 2019, and we’re in a Golden Age of cult musicals. Be More Chill recently opened on Broadway, Hadestown just swept the 2019 Tony Awards, and, just a few months ago, Heathers closed a widely successful West End run. After years of underground obsessing, dorky theatre kids are finally rewarded with online spaces to scream about their favorite shows and watch bootlegs galore of the performances they couldn’t see live.
However, one show — despite first being conceptualized 20 years ago — is still left out of the online hype and cult-like status. Don’t be mistaken: It does have a small and very dedicated fanbase. But, in conversations about similar pop/rock musicals like Rent, Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal, Heathers or Dear Evan Hansen… Bare: A Pop Opera is often left out of the conversation.
Like many of its contemporaries, Bare: A Pop Opera highlights young people dealing with heavy, often dark, issues like sexuality, drug use, and unplanned pregnancy. The story follows a group of students at a Catholic boarding school, focusing most closely on Peter and Jason: two roommates, best friends, and secret boyfriends. Throughout their last semester of senior year, the students struggle to come to terms with their identities, navigate interpersonal relationships and, most importantly, put on a musical version of Romeo and Juliet.
Among many, one of the most profound and relatable songs is Nadia’s “Plain Jane Fat Ass” from Act I. Any plus-sized actress who has struggled with casting can relate to her frustrations that she knows her acting holds up, but that her body just doesn’t make the cut. (And I’m not just saying that as someone who also played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) Which is why, when the production was reconceptualized for an Off-Broadway run in 2012 and cast Barrett Wilbert Weed — a skinny actress — as Nadia, much of the heart of the character was lost. Wilbert Weed, known for originating the roles of Veronica Sawyer in Heathers and Janis Sarkisian in Mean Girls, is a killer actress, of course. The writers were able to introduce new complexities to the character, but the central conflict of her storyline was lost in the rewrite.
In fact, many aspects of the story were lost in the rewrite. Because, after all, what works best about Bare: A Pop Opera is that every lyric the actors sing provides something new to the story. This is rare for a show that’s sung throughout, but Bare succeeds with flying colors. Therefore, adapting the production as a musical and introducing a book element, while removing several musical motifs that made the original score so successful can only result in a disappointing production. With this in mind, any production that returns to its roots as a pop opera is starting out on a better note than the 2012 adaptation.
And yet, the new revival at London’s The Vaults in Southwark, which sticks strictly to the original score, falls flat. As Jason tells Peter in Act I, “This is all just a game,” and the score is constantly introducing new players and rules. Yet this Bare lacks the necessary chemistry to pull this off.
“You & I,” which establishes Peter and Jason’s relationship as playful and full of punch, feels weightless as actors miss cues and mumble innuendos. “See Me,” in which Peter tries desperately to come out to his mother, relies on the actors’ abilities to cut the other off in their awkward phone conversation, but both Daniel Mack Shand and Jo Napthine were somehow simultaneously anticipating their next line and late to react to the previous statement.
“Plain Jane Fat Ass,” too, which so expertly establishes Nadia’s use of humor to mask her insecurities, felt lost as Georgie Lovatt hid some of the funniest lines. The show’s snappy lyrics and high energy necessitate lightning-fast reflexes, but at many points the London production dragged.
However, one unique aspect the production incorporated was concluding by reading the names of LGBTQ+ teenagers who had lost their lives. Hearing their names read out was powerful, particularly at the conclusion of Pride Month. The actors reading their names in their natural voices, rather than the put-on American accents, made the moment particularly poignant, emphasizing that the story’s dark themes are as real and relevant as ever.
Will this production of Bare: A Pop Opera spark enough online hype to establish cult status for Bare: A Pop Opera? No, probably not. If the superstar cast from the 2012 musical, which in addition to Wilbert Weed also starred Taylor Trensch (Hello Dolly, Dear Evan Hansen), Alice Lee (Heathers), and Elizabeth Judd (Hamilton) couldn’t garner widespread interest, it’s clear that’s an almost impossible feat. But this awkward interpretation surely won’t make the cut, even if they can sort out their mistakes over the course of their run.
But you should go see it anyway. Because, well, it’s Bare.
Bare: A Pop Opera is running at The Vaults until August 4.