Friday, June 7, 2013

REVIEW: OSF's "The Unfortunates"

You know how I generally like musicals. And happy theater. And musicals are usually happy, right? Well, not this time. Here's an unhappy musical and I didn't really like it on that level.

Continuing and completing my review of three Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays I take a look at the world premiere of  the musical"The Unfortunates."

Armless and big fisted.

The Message:

"A musical pilgrimage through uniquely American genres [jazz, blues, gospel] delivers five prisoners to salvation — or at least keeps the terror at bay. Facing an uncertain end, they bring to life the story of Big Joe, a tough bartender who risks everything to save the armless courtesan Rae from a deadly plague. Combining the heat of a gospel revival with the sweet sorrow of the blues [and hip hop], 'The Unfortunates' convinces us that any great challenge can be faced with dignity, grace, and compassion. [Even if all's not well and doesn't end well.]

It is difficult material, sad and brooding for the most part (much like Les Miserables), though it ends with a lively tune (Lord, Raise Me Up) that indicates the hope of the hereafter.

The Music:

A dance number on the set of "The Unfortunates."
I love the blues, I love gospel, but not so much when it comes to hip hop and this is an amalgamation of the three--a synthesis opera of sorts. Generally that did worked for me.

The music was a mix of recorded pieces and live music from a small ensemble (Casey Hurt on bandleader and guitar, Jesse Baldwin on keys, accordion and guitar, Mike Fitch on drums and Joseph Porto on bass). They were quite good.

The writers, Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan, Ramiz Monsef were all in the show. Obviously genius musicians and writers, not all were as good at performing the material. I speak primarily of Ian Merrigan who wasn't particularly strong in his lead role(s)--not strong enough anyway. Especially compared to the other members of the talented cast which included Kjerstine Rose Anderson, Rodney Gardiner, Cristofer Jean, Barret O'Brien, Christina Acosta Robinson, Ken Robinson, Jon Beavers and Chavez Ravine as well.

Ramiz Monsef, right, as the doctor.
In top form, however, was Ramiz Monsef, a superb actor. Monsef was splendid in his roles as the heavies (especially as the doctor) and Ken Robinson was tops as the religious-irreligious Preach.

The Making:

The production values were exceptional. The sound (Corinne Carrillo) and lighting (Jiyoun Chang) design, the sets (Sibyl Wickersheimer) and costumes (Katherine O'Neill) all glorious. Technically the show was a marvel with an overall Cirque du Soleil feel in a serious funk. Color changers, fog, moving lights and gobos, lifts, chases and much more added to a simply striking look. The choreography, by Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, was also stunning.

Ian Merrigan the foreground as King Jesse.
As indicated, the show was a downer and often bawdy--I wouldn't recommend it for children due to the dark material, some blasphemous religiosity and sexuality. Having said that, the show was entertaining for its quality music and production.

Very advant garde and, if you like that sort of thing, you ought to see it. The direction, by Shana Cooper, was well done.

The musical's running time clocks in at about 90 minutes (which was long enough) and it is showing now through November 2. More information and tickets are available here.

By Gregory E. Zschomler
A link to a review by Dennis Sparks here.
All photographs and video provided.

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