Before going into a rehearsal last week in Minneapolis, young actor Dan Lundin had a hallelujah moment. He had found the best way to describe his biggest role to date -- the golden boy Jason in the pop-rock musical "Bare."

Lundin likened Jason to another role he has played, cocky jock Troy Bolton in the hit Disney show "High School Musical."

"Troy's the popular guy who everyone wants to be, or be with," he said. "His struggle is between his image and his desire to sing. Jason's also good-looking and popular, but he is struggling with inner demons."

Demons that could kill him.

"Bare," which opens today at Illusion Theater in a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, premiered in 2000 in Los Angeles before being produced off-Broadway. The musical deals with issues that are evergreen for many teenagers -- sexual exploration, spiritual questioning and drug use.

The stakes are heightened in "Bare" because of its setting and play-within-a-musical narrative. Composer Damon Intrabartolo and lyricist Jon Hartmere placed the action in a Catholic boarding school where Jason and his altar-boy roommate, Peter, try to keep their love secret. Jason has been cast as Romeo and Peter as Mercutio in a school production of "Romeo and Juliet." The action in "Bare" takes a stark turn that partly mirrors the plot of the Shakespearean classic.

"The story centers on a gay relationship, but it's much more than that," said Derek Prestly, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate who plays Peter and who also appeared in MMT's "Evil Dead" last fall. "When you're in high school, you're trying to figure out who you are. Peter's stuck in a relationship where he can't really be who he wants to be. He's conflicted. But he has a big heart and a huge capacity to love."

Broader themes

Director Steven Meerdink added that "there are other elements in the show, including teenage pregnancy and weight issues. In today's world, where so many young people take their lives either because they've been bullied or can't seem to deal with their sexuality, this story presents a lovely examination of young people trying to find out how they fit in."

While the issues in "Bare" seemed pulled from the headlines, that news currency was not what first attracted Meerdink to the title. He was drawn to "Bare," formerly subtitled "a pop opera," because of its music.

"It's quite lovely and full of emotional variety," he said of the Intrabartolo score. "It doesn't have all kinds of styles, like 'Joseph,' but it has so many serious, light and touching moments."

Lundin, a Lakeville North High School graduate who has performed at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji in such shows as "The Who's Tommy" and "Gypsy," said that he, too, was attracted to the songs.

The actor watched excerpts of previous productions of "Bare" online and listened so often to the cast recording, he had memorized all of it before the first auditions.

"Truthfully, this was one of my favorite shows," he said. "It means a lot to me to play a character that can provide hope to kids in confusion. And being familiar with [the role] beforehand allows me to find the nuances of Jason. It would be easy to play him as a selfish jerk, but I've been able to find tiny moments that reveal a softness to him."

For his part, Prestly said that the character not only allows him to deliver on his personal sense of mission, which includes affirming confused teens. He also has drawn lessons from playing Peter.

"It's difficult for me, sometimes, to live and let live in my life," Prestly said. "It's just hard to let go of injustices and grudges. But there's a moment at the end of the show when Peter is at confession after a tragedy. Usually, the priest is there to listen and offer forgiveness. But here, he asks for Peter's forgiveness. People make mistakes when they don't mean to. And even though it's hard to forgive them, you have to try. The scene rips your heart out."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390