Social struggles of a gay couple come out in ‘Bare’

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

During a gay marriage depicted in the musical “Bare: A Pop Opera,” a character speculates that the event must be taking place in Massachusetts. Ferndale director Eric Swanson says it’s remarkable how much has changed since he first staged “Bare” four years ago, when gay marriage was still legal in just one state.

“That wedding sequence is a dream,” Swanson says. “He dreams that he can get married to his partner and it can be legal and be officiated and be fully recognized. And now it’s not just a dream. It’s actually a reality.”

“Bare” plays this weekend and next at the Ferndale First United Methodist Church, marking the third time Swanson has directed the show and the second he’s staged it with his Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company. The show, which is almost entirely sung-through, follows two gay Catholic high school students, Peter and Jason, as they struggle over whether to make their relationship and their sexual identity public.

“It’s your basic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story, except that when the musical starts, Peter and Jason are a gay couple and their relationship is already in progress,” Swanson says.

As Swanson’s Shakespeare comparison indicates, the show is a tragedy that deals with the issue of teen suicide. Jillian Hoffman, who portrayed Ivy in Swanson’s 2011 production of “Bare” and will reprise the role in the new production, says that while many of the issues the show raises are still relevant, in some ways “Bare” is on its way to becoming a period piece.

“It’s interesting to see when it’s going to be like a time capsule,” says the Rochester-based Hoffman. “Like, ‘Wow, parents actually treated their kids like this because of their sexual orientation. Wow, somebody was actually that upset with their sexual orientation that they wanted to harm themselves.’ ”

The play’s themes have proved “deeply important” to Royal Oak actor David Musselwhite, who plays Peter in the show. Musselwhite grew up in Macon, Georgia, where he felt unable to come out as a gay man. He first heard the “Bare” soundtrack as a freshman in high school and found solace in hearing his own challenges represented in the music.

“I wasn’t open and honest with my family and my friends,” he says. “So I identified very, very strongly with Peter’s struggle and I’ve wanted to do the show ever since.”

Swanson says the show plays strongly into the mission of the theater company, which emphasizes primarily musicals that are “socially progressive or have some kind of moral debate.” Talkback sessions will follow each performance of “Bare,” including a discussion after the July 17 performance led by the Rev. Robert Schoenhals of Ferndale First United.

“Last time we did it, I can’t tell you how many people were impacted by (teen suicide) and actually had buried somebody … because of bullying, or because they were gay and their parents kicked them out, or they had been rejected because of their sexual orientation,” Swanson says.

Musselwhite says the production will only add to the “celebration” of the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, but that the show may still hold much deeper significance for many of today’s LGBT youth.

“You read about suicide of LGBT teens in the news and always in the back of my mind I wish that they had been able to experience a piece of art like ‘Bare’ so they could see that they’re not alone in that struggle,” he says. “It’s so deeply powerful to me for that reason.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

‘Bare: A Pop Opera’

8 p.m. Friday, Saturdayand July 17-18

Ferndale First United Methodist Church

22331 Woodward, Ferndale

Tickets $15-$20

(248) 545-4467