The new musical has arrived. No, “Hamilton” doesn’t come to Northern California until next year, but a contemporary work based on classic Americana and infused with all forms of song is electrifying the stage.
“The Unfortunates,” currently at American Conservatory Theatre’s recently opened 283-seat Strand Theatre on Market Street, was written by Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, Kristopher Diaz and Ramiz Monsef and first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013. It’s a meditation on love, death and war that utilizes gospel, blues, and bursting swatches of hip hop in its storytelling.
The woozy surreal spectacle fuses the bluesy fatalism of the song “St. James Infirmary” with vivid theatrics and fluid imaginative stage craft. Innovative choreographer Erika Chong Such created the movement. With the story reworked from that original production, this new version includes all the writers as performers except for Diaz.
Co-creator Monsef, who plays multiple roles, has said that inspiration for the piece came to him as a child when he heard Cab Calloway singing “St. James Infirmary” in a classic 1933 Betty Boop cartoon. Much of the cartoon’s surreal imagery, fluid transformations and the character of Koko the clown (expertly performed by Eddie Lopez) surface in the show. Like many a classic blues, “St. James Infirmary” has numerous iterations, and different singers have offered versions of the tune since Louis Armstrong first recorded it and made it famous in 1928. At it’s core the song tells of a man seeing his dead lover stretched out on a table in the morgue and how he may soon be joining her. Though the characters in the song may have engaged in questionable behaviors, they’re much more savory protagonists here.
The hazy story set vaguely in the past follows Big Joe (Merrigan) and his pals Coughlin (Beavers) and CJ (Christopher Livingston) as they are inducted into the Army. After his friends die, Big Joe has to figure how to mourn them and carry on all the while haunted by the presence of the mysterious singer Rae (the graceful Taylor Iman Jones) who innocently seduced him into enlisting.
The 10-person cast of full-voiced singers continually shape shifts with with the propulsive music created by the five-person on-stage band. Under the sure hand of director Shana Cooper the musical is at times a gospel revival and others a New Orleans funeral dirge but always arresting and life-affirming.
What: American Conservatory Theatre production of a mythical and surreal new musical adapted from the classic blues song “St. James Infirmary,” written and performed by Jon Beavers, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef, additional material by Kristoffer Diaz and Casey Lee Hurt. Also with Eddie Lopez, Taylor Iman Jones, and Christopher Livingston. Directed by Shana Cooper.
Where: ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco
When: Through April 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Information: (415)749-2228; www.act-sf.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission