In The Unfortunates, a prisoner of war journeys through a dream world (inspired by the classic blues tune “St. James Infirmary”) where he faces a number of enemies and risks everything to save the woman he loves. The characters’ quest for salvation is marked by willingness to make music in the face of loss, and searching for love in times of desperation. It’s as life-affirming as it is dark and imaginative.
The show has so many strong points. The music is a memorable fusion of blues, gospel and hip-hop that had me dying to buy the soundtrack. The staging is imaginative and engaging. The stylized nature of the show effortlessly transports the audience into this fantasy world. The costumes are well-done, and the dynamic set is particularly wonderful.
A brilliant cast transforms this bizarre saga into a show that moved me far more deeply than I thought it would.
Ian Merrigan as Big Joe and Taylor Iman Jones as Rae bring a lot of depth to their characters. Their voices fit the show’s music perfectly. Jones’ physicality was perfect for her character – more on that later.
As strong as the lead actors are, some of the best performances come from supporting actors. Ramiz Monsef plays each of the villains in the show and is perfectly menacing, insane, or crooked as needed. Danielle Herbert as Madame has a tremendous voice – its size and strength is rivaled only by that of her wig. Eddie Lopez (a Northern California native!) is excellent as Koko. He easily transforms from one of the most charming characters into one of the scariest. Big Joe’s best friends – Jon Beavers as Coughlin and Christopher Livingston as CJ – are highlights. I was drawn to their performances every time they stepped out of the wings.
There were a few aspects of the show that didn’t quite make sense. The biggest one: why the character Rae had no arms. (The actress’ arms were pinned behind her in an elaborate costume throughout the dream segment of the show. I was thoroughly impressed by Jones’ ability to dance in it without keeling over.) Neither the character nor the show’s message would be altered by having all of Rae’s limbs free, though I understand the metaphorical/conceptual reasons for the design choice.
In the original soundtrack, there are many more references to Rae’s being armless than there are in the revised show at ACT. I wonder if this remnant from the original production would be best left behind.
Overall, though, The Unfortunates is remarkable. Between the show’s extraordinary visual aspects, catchy music, and skillful acting, it’s well worth the ticket price. Catch this one while it’s still on the West Coast – I have a feeling we’ll be hearing all about its New York run soon!
The Unfortunates plays through April 10, 2016 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available at the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or online at act-sf.org.