THE BLUES, JAZZ, AND RAP
LEAD US TO THE PROMISED LAND IN “THE UNFORTUNATES” NOW AT A.C.T.
St. James Infirmary (often credited to Joe Primrose), a Gambler’s Blues made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928, haunts us once again in THE UNFORTUNATES. Making its regional premiere at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through April 10th. The cult hit musical from Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) fuels and captivates with melancholy, blues, funk, hip-hop, and gospel with a cabaret steam punk style. A mix of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera to American Idiot, Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter, rap, blues, ballads, hip-hop, and gospel, this demented death war camp has the emotion and spirit of a punk gospel encounter with a first rate cast and production team. A prison camp from WWI is revealed as Act one opens, three soldiers are about to be executed. “The St James Infirmary” haunts the three and powers this dream with a hip hop soul.
Directed by Shana Cooper THE UNFORTUNATES will capture you in the stream of creative afterlife, song and dance. Starting out as a side project that was produced and performed at OSF in 2013, Beavers, Monsef, Merrigan, Casey Lee Hurt, and Kristoffer Diaz deliver a great musical treat, but sometimes falls short due to lack of specificity. There isn’t much to say about the war and time period which can be confusing. In addition, the identity of the soldiers is not clearly outlined, but all of that is forgivable when the chemistry of the performers is so infectiously hypnotic through the syncopated rhymes and gospel struggle of loss in the score. Aside from St. James Infirmary, songs like “Run Joe,” “Old Time Glory,” and its reprise invoke such sparking power. The production is truly worth seeing and worth fighting for, as we see Big Joe, fight for love through the depths of the afterlife.
During the world at war, a shadowy dark leather-trenched man (Ramiz Monsef) imprisons Big Joe (Ian Merrigan) and his playful pals (Jon Beavers and Christopher Livingston) where they are shot dead into the mysterious underworld saloon.There are hellish foggy lights and a fire-storm of a band behind the bar, and blues singing cronies that make the setting a woeful wonder. Merrigan is wonderful as Big Joe as the musical sings the story of Joe, a big-fisted hellboy badass who journeys through the dream netherworld where he goes against all odds especially from the antagonist, the mad scientist (Ramiz Monsef) who attempts to quarantine Big Joe’s delicate armless song-bird love, Rae (very skilled Taylor Iman Jones) due to the plague that has infected the world. Eddie Lopez as Koko the clown is exceptional and he has a skilled sound and timing. Lauren Hart, as Roxy, Danielle Herbert as Madame, and Arthur Wise as the Preacher are excellent in the cast.
The company empowers this myth and slam skilfully with taps and belts some great songs highlighted by local favorites Taylor Iman Jones and Amy Lizardo. “I Want You” features the cast in a rousing spirited production, along with “Let Some Light In”. The style is rap - jazz and punk, moving to rock and roll. The stories poetic spoken slam is laced with ironic tones. The Strand stage is the perfect fit for this show. Cooper keeps the small space busy with a layered set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer, as the setting reveals a smoky club to a cemetery. Erika Chong Shuch's impressive choreography holds strong to avoid that Fosse look and create some swing, tap and punk jazz. Katherine O'Neill's authentic adept costumes including a sexy style for Rae’s armless mystery. Russell H. Champa's lighting design is incorporated into the set and the small club stages with their own lights and a giant lighted red cross. Music Director, Casey Lee Hurt, has an onstage band including Hurt on piano and guitar, Rokeach on drums, Will Hendricks on bass, Karl Theobald on woodwinds, and Kevin Porter on brass. The sound fills the Strand and Brendan Aanes' sound design is startling at times with the perfect gun shots and pounding power of the huge hands.
THE UNFORTUNATES plays like a dream and is electrifying and where the future of musical theatre needs to explore. The heart and soul of its spirit, songs and characters of this company are selling out the Strand Theatre. The captivating armless diva, Rae, says, “If these arms could hold you.” Big Joe’s Popeye-sized fists carry this poem that even death cannot kill. The folks here can find fortune and redemption through each other, and learn compassion through song. The sold out opening night audience were on their feet the moment the show faded to black. THE UNFORTUNATES is wild, smoky, and energized; the entire 90 minutes is a power blast.
American Conservatory Theater Presents
By Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Directed by Shana Cooper,
Music Director Casey Lee Hurt
Through: April 10
The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission