“Hair” to “bare” — Peering beneath the surface

Forty-five years ago, I took a class of college students to Hollywood to see Hair.  Billed as “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” — with a multi-racial cast, drugs, sex, nudity, draft-card burning and live chickens —  it had just opened here, early in its first Broadway year.  Soon it was “premiering” simultaneously in nine US cities, the only theatrical production ever to do so.

Hair became a catalyst and anthem in the change movements sweeping across 1960’s America — youth  culture, sexual liberation, psychedelics, civil rights and the Vietnam War protests among them.  My wide-eyed science majors were shocked, exhilarated and changed by their first taste of live theatre.  They’re now in their 60s,  their careers and families winding down, but I doubt any of them has forgotten it.

bare

Last weekend, I watched bare: a pop opera.  This musical drama about students at a Catholic prep school also focuses on the crucial but hidden issues in adolescent life — identity, love, sex, drugs, bullying, homosexuality, suicide.  It’s a strong piece of theatre, a necklace of well-written songs strung on a well-woven story.

In 2001, bare — created and premiered here in LA — swept awards from LA Weekly, Backstage and the LA Drama Critics Circle.  But it seems to have been seldom produced since then.

Under Fred Helsel’s direction at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, bare returned to life (briefly — alas, it’s already closed) on a striking set by Seth Kamenow, expressively lit by Jackson Miller.  The production deftly evoked the enclosed world of St. Cecilia’s boarding school.  The actors (local professionals, most not far out of their teens) created clear characters who struggle — while they  rehearse Romeo and Juliet — to find roles beyond those offered by their parents, their peers, or their drama teacher.

As an opera, bare doesn’t dare the musical heights of, say, Puccini.  Nor did I go home humming any of the tunes.  But from introspective arias (“Quiet Night at Home,” “Warning,” “Portrait of a Girl”) to duets (“Are You There?” “Touch My Soul”) to rousing choruses (“Birthday Bitch,” “911! Emergency!”), the songs comfortably inhabit the idioms of pop/soft rock, delivering their story moments with vocal and emotional accuracy.  Sound designer Chris Grote held the band and singers in balance– and wrung near-perfect clarity from the head mics, a rare but  crucial coup.

Musical theatre needs triple-threat players, and all 18 cast members brought the skills.  Julia Williams (“Plain Jane Fat Ass” Nadia) and Brittney S. Wheeler (drama coach Sister Chantelle and the Virgin Mary) can take over any stage — but wisely didn’t when it wasn’t their turn.  Hunter Larsen (“popular” girl Ivy) contained her complex character and her bell-like voice in a stereotype, then let them emerge gradually.  And Julian Comeau (Peter) held our empathy as he found his character’s sexuality and then his strength.

Culminating in a pregnancy and a suicide, bare embraces the tragic thorns of adolescent life.  It doesn’t back away, and doesn’t offer solutions.  It pleads instead for empathy, and wisdom.

Perhaps that’s why bare hasn’t taken the country by storm the way Hair did.  On the surface, it’s  enclosed in the school and church, while Hair dances in the streets.  And in the 21st century,  the Catholic Church makes a poor, straw-filled substitute for “The Man” — giving bare an antagonist whose power nobody believes in.

Yet bare portrays a more complex world, where difference still is not celebrated as readily as it is attacked or ignored.  Where drugs have become an industry, turning classmates into cynical dealers and endangered dupes.  Where coming out isn’t as easy as tearing off your shirt, and where the girl still gets stuck doing pregnancy solo.

Hair was a song and dance of optimism.  It saw the world beyond the “tribe” entirely from their point of view, as the street kids mimed and mocked adult figures.  It came at a moment when so much was starting to change so fast that it was possible to hope, even in the face of violence.

A generation later, bare peers into the teen world from outside.  It also peers beneath stereotypes, seeking the inner reality of each character, adults as well as teens.  And it comes as the world is changing even faster, often in directions too dark for easy hope.

Hair, like the Rolling Stones, is an aging cultural icon with great  songs.  (Plus nudity and live chickens.)  At 13, bare is less imposing. But it’s more moving, because it reveals people beneath their skins.  And it offers something we need for negotiating the difficult future that we — like teenagers — all must face.