If the title of Stage Left Theater's season finale — Bare: A Pop Opera — prompts a double take, you might not be alone. When the current season was announced, the spot was initially reserved for The Threepenny Opera, the 1928 collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill that gave us "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny." Its inclusion in the lineup was significant not just for its reputation as a classic piece of sociopolitically charged theater but also its status as the venue's first-ever musical.
Plans changed a few short months ago when Wes Deitrick, who took over from Tia Wooley as the theater's managing director, began putting the preliminary pieces in place for the production.
"When it came time to do it and Wes talked to me about it, we were kind of unclear on what interpretation of the script we wanted to do," says director Troy Nickerson. "And then we didn't really have a musical director locked in, so it seemed a little overwhelming at that moment. There was just a lot of uncertainty around it."
There was another show that Nickerson had been "dying to do," though, and he proposed it as a suitable replacement for The Threepenny Opera, which has since been rescheduled for this autumn.
The show he had in mind was Bare, a 2000 "popera" written and scored by two young Hollywood creatives, Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere. In portraying the social anxieties, theological misgivings and sexual awakenings of a close-knit group of teenaged students at a Catholic boarding school, Bare could also be said to be sociopolitically charged, which would keep it in the same loose vein as the musical it was to replace.
"I had wanted to do Bare really badly for a long time. Somebody put me onto it maybe as long as 10 years ago, and I'm a fan of that style of musical. I loved Jesus Christ Superstar. Also, as a gay man who grew up in the Catholic school system, it told my story in a lot of ways. It just spoke to me."
Bare, moreover, "also speaks to the space we're in," says Nickerson. It has a "black-box feel" that seemed like an ideal fit for Stage Left's relatively small stage and modest seating capacity.
"I'm using very basic unit sets designed by Bailey Heppler, and that's the entire set. My idea was very stripped down. And in that space, I think that's appropriate, necessary and will have great impact on the audience. We have 15 people onstage in a few moments of the show, and it's going to be pretty powerful in a room that size."
Those 15 people include several young actors who had been encouraging Nickerson to "do Bare, do Bare, do Bare" for some time.
"They knew about it. They were excited about it. And that made me excited about it even more," he says. "You know, more than half of this cast I've never even worked with before, and a good deal of them I've never even met before."
One new actor to Nickerson as well as the local stage is Scott Miller, who's been cast as Jason McConnell — someone Miller describes as "golden child, big guy on campus" — in what's perhaps Bare's most pivotal role. Originally from Tri-Cities, Miller has been in the Spokane area for about four years but has only recently resumed acting. His first local stage appearance was as an ensemble member in the Spokane Civic Theatre's holiday production of Elf the Musical.
"His life is pretty easy," Miller says of his character, before adding that Bare's tumult and tragedy arise when "he loses control and begins to realize that everything isn't so easy and perfect. He's also pretty complex in the relationships that he has not only with his twin sister but with God. You get to see a beautiful arc of realization and discovery."
Appearing alongside Miller as his onstage peer group are Brady Magruder, who plays Jason's illicit lover, Peter; Isabella Mesenbrink as Ivy, their mutual friend; Haley McDaniel as Nadia, Jason's sardonic twin sister; and Jerrod Galles as Matt, another member of their student circle. The younger cast is joined by experienced stage actors like Abbey Crawford, who plays Peter's mother; Alyssa Day as drama teacher Sister Chantelle; and Todd Kehne as the nameless priest.
As a kind of play-within-a-play conceit, the students' relationships are channeled and paralleled through a school production of Romeo and Juliet.
"That is one of the greatest love stories ever told. And to have the writers [evoke] the similarities of Romeo and Juliet, and having that flipped with two males portraying it, that is so brave and so beautiful," says Miller. Incorporating Shakespeare's play also allows Bare to tap into timeless themes of star-crossed lovers while depicting struggles and challenges that echo contemporary headlines.
"You have so many layers and levels within Bare itself," he says. "The story itself pertains so much to today's world, more so than it did 20 years ago when it was written. Sex culture, pop culture, drug abuse — all of the scenarios and situations that these kids are going through are alive in schools today."
Nickerson is inclined to agree.
"There was a time that I thought maybe a show like Bare wasn't really relevant anymore. And then, I think with what's happening right now in the world and with people, I feel like we've taken a step backwards. Things have gotten so crazy, and suicide rates are up. Maybe this story now is much more relevant again and it's a good time to share it," he says.
And that process of sharing isn't just with the audience.
"This has brought people together who probably never would have hung out otherwise. It's been an interesting journey for everybody. It's opened up some pretty fantastic conversations. I think theater does that in general, but in this case it's even been a little more special." ♦
Bare: A Pop Opera • May 24-June 16; Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $20 • Stage Left Theater • 108 W. Third • spokanestageleft.org • 838-9727