Rock musicals are high risk/high reward propositions. Rock music is about bombast, drama is about subtlety and so the two forms rarely blend successfully. The ones that do - The Who's Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Spring Awakening'' - are those which address and accommodate this contradiction of styles.
Bare, the cult American pop opera that transfers to Greenwich following its British premiere at the Union, sadly falls short by some distance. Passionately performed and brilliantly sung by its young cast, the piece itself is unworthy of their mighty efforts.
The setting is an American boarding school (cue moody choral singing to show the strictures of private education followed by a noisy recreation of Spring Awakening's "The Bitch of Living" as they let it all out).
Two of the boys, Jason and Peter, are gay but of course they can't admit this to anyone, even the mother of one of them who knows it anyway. A love triangle emerges when one of the boys forms a fruitful pairing with a girl. Meanwhile, the school is rehearsing a musical of Romeo and Juliet which helpfully (if a little obviously) provides dramatic irony and the writers the fun of setting Shakespeare to rock music. The story's one surprise is that a show which one assumes will end on a "why can't we all just love each other" cheese-fest actually ends on a downer.
Fans of pop riffs are well served and some of Damon Intrabartolo's melodies, mostly in the second act, really deliver the goods. John Hartmere's lyrics never do (there's lots of talk of drawing "circles in our souls" and that kind of thing). It's no great shame that so many of them are lost amidst the noise; the opening number of Act Two achieved the notable distinction of being the only song I've ever heard in a musical in which I didn't catch a single word.
The cast, though, belt it all out at a phenomenal level. Michael Vinsen's attractively tender Peter leaves one in no doubt as to what Jason (powerful Ross William Wild) sees in him, and vocally he dazzles. So does Jodie Steele as Ivy, compelled to constantly belt right at the top of her range and who does so faultlessly. Claudia Kariuki is brilliant in the (admittedly written-by-numbers sassy support) role of Sister Chantelle, and Nadine Cox gives a moving performance as Peter's mother. The production moves as fluidly as the book will allow on David Shields' striking design, even if the impressively complex lighting design is sometimes distractingly animated.
There's no denying that Bare is the kind of show that schools and drama schools should enjoy doing as, like Spring Awakening (which in fact it preceded in America), it shows characters of similar ages addressing similar concerns to their own. I'm sure it's a blast to perform. But, at least to me, this musical about adolescents just isn't a show for grown-ups.