Friday, March 11, 2016

"The Unfortunates"

The Unfortunates
Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan & Ramiz Monsef

Christopher Livingston, Ian Merrigan & Jon Beavers
What starts as one lone piano player in a barren saloon setting explodes into a kaleidoscope of colors and characters that boggle the senses and imagination.  The story is as timeless as The Odyssey with a would-be hero setting out on an unexpected journey to face fantastic challenges, to meet unexpected loyal cohorts, to battle villains unimaginable, and of course to fall for the love he ultimately cannot have.  Along the way, our hero learns that one life lesson he has refused until now to tackle but one he must conquer to complete his journey successfully.  His travails and travels burst before us at times straight out of a 1930s cartoon with creatures and caricatures strange and surreal and with touches of combined silly and sad.  At other times, we are in a horror film with monsters lurking; in a big Hollywood production number with leggy dancers and big voices; or in a dark, intimate scene of a hidden New Orleans nightclub with a soulful, solo instrumentalist and singer.  The story is told in musical narrative that draws on and blends the musical backgrounds of its five co-creators (Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan & Ramiz Monsef) with blues, rock, gospel, and Dixieland coloring the overall hip-hop framework. 

The list of reasons to validate that American Conservatory Theatre has a genuine, not-to-be-missed hit in its epic production of The Unfortunates is long.  Imaginative, multi-level sets (Sibly Wickersheimer) provide an intimate club setting for Casey Lee Hurt’s excellent band of eight as well as front-, side-, and backstage platforms, nooks, and closets for surprise popups and backstops.  Eye-popping costumes (Katherine O’Neill) define dream-like personalities, larger-than-life caricatures, and reprobates that ooze with evil.  Sounds erupt, sizzle, and pop (Brenden Aanes); and lighting pinpoints an action, diffuses a feeling, and changes a mood in astounding ways (Russell H. Champa).  Choreography is sometimes right out of a garish 1930s extravaganza and other times, from some dark, ghoulish backroom.  All would be for naught except for a cast that, under the creative and boundary-stretching decisions of Director Shana Cooper, deliver every minute of the ninety performances that sizzle and shock as well as emote genuine caring and empathy.  And all the time, audience toes are tapping, people are swaying in their seats, and everyone is often ready to jump up and dance along to the contagious energy of the captivating music.

Ian Merrigan as "Big Joe"
Cocky, drunk Big Joe and his rambunctious pals, CJ and Coughlin, are lured out of their back-alley carousing by a Patton-like recruitment speech of a sickly smiling General Goodtimes and his three gorgeous Victory Girls singing an alluring, “I want you, I need you” to the boys.  Taking the challenge with the naïve assurance of the young and singing, “Let’s go down to fight for fame and glory,” the three soon find themselves on a losing battlefield with an enemy’s gun pointed at them.  With a whole cast joining in a powerful, “I Went Down,” Joe’s pals collapse to bullets in their heads as the gun now aims at him.  At that moment, he mystically begins a quest that sends him looking for that part of himself that he has been missing, has refused to see and accept.  Before he dies and can rest in peace, there is a learning to face; and there are changes to be made.

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe brings an ego-inflamed assuredness, braggadocio, and recklessness that emanates in his every exaggerated saunter across stage, muscle poise to appear cool, and looks of stubborn defiance when odds point against him.  His anger and bravado are symbolically entrapped in gigantic, clenched fists that can do a lot of harm but have difficulty extending to offer solace and understanding.  “It’s Good to Be the King,” he bolts in song; but he also finds later in an old-time revival-like setting, “I need someone to catch me when I fall.”

Taylor Iman Jones as "Rae"
That someone becomes the most unlikely of frail creatures.  When he meets a wingless, bird-like beauty named Rae, she becomes his guide and inner conscience to help him manipulate the trail ahead; she also begins to melt his rough exterior to him find a heart that can love and can be broken.  Taylor Iman Jones brings a achingly sorrowful, blues and gospel voice to balance the rapping energy of Big Joe’s hip hop.  She sings with soul to Big Joe, “Let us help you with the hand you’ve been dealt ... You need someone to help you when you fall.”

Along the way, Big Joe and Rae meet a white-faced, ghost-like clown Koko (Eddie Lopez), an over-sized in body and heart Preacher (Arthur Wise), and a jovial, big-haired Handsome Carl (Amy Lizardo) -- all who pump Joe’s ego when needed, accompany and push him forward in his journey, and sometimes sacrifice themselves to the plagues and bullies he confronts.  Ramiz Monsef is the deliciously, multi-faced devil who embodies all the bad guys Joe meets (General Goodtimes, the gun-pointing enemy on the battlefield, a casino boss with tempting dice for a game of life and death, and a Nazi-like doctor prowling for victims in his lab of infectious disease).  Big Joe also continues to run across images of his now-dead friends CJ (Christopher Livingston) and Coughlin (Jon Beavers).  Each takes on multiple faces both fanciful and fearful and together, with others of his new friends who succumb along the way, become long-beaked rooks who haunt him at times with eerie dances and songs and at other times, offer him paths to his own salvation.

The co-creators have found their initial inspiration for this vibrant, mysterious, weird, and wonderful tale told in song, rap, and rhythm in a traditional English folk song of anonymous origins, “St James Infirmary.”  Made famous by a 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong and further immortalized by a 1933 Cab Calloway recording and filmed cartoon with Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.  Telling of an unfortunate, young rake (Big Joe McKinney) cut short in his life by his gambling, drinking, and sexual carousing, themes and images from its lyrics as well as the traditional New Orleans treatment of its music blossom into the mystical fantasy of The Unfortunates.  The result as presented by the American Conservatory Theatre is a must-see for a sight, sound, and sensory adventure like none other. 

Rating: 5 E

The Unfortunates continues through April 10 at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand Theatre, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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