Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Unfortunates
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Richard Connema | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's recent reviews of Ondine, Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant and Dogeaters and Patrick's reviews of Kismet and Aubergine

Christopher Livingston, Ian Merrigan, and Jon Beavers
Photo by Kevin Berne
American Conservatory Theater is presenting the electrifying musical The Unfortunates that was first presented at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years ago. I saw this musical up in Ashland, Oregon, and it became one of my favorites productions that year. The exhilarating musical was created by Jon Beavers, Kristoffer Diaz, Casey Lee Hurt, Ian Merrigan, and Ramiz Monsef and features a superb cast of fervent actors. The powerful pulsating music carries the show more than the plot does, with its distinctive mix of early 20th century American blues and gospel stylings merged with modern and syncopated rhythms. You can also catch early rock and roll in some of the score. Your feet and head will move to the effervescent music in this 90-minute without intermission piece.

The Unfortunates opens in a prison camp during World War I as three soldiers are awaiting execution. As each is shot, they are singing "The St. James Infirmary Blues" which will feature prominently later in the musical. Only Big Joe (Ian Merrigan) escapes death. Suddenly, the audience is transported to a New Orleans style bar where the city is in the midst of a "plague." We encounter Big Joe, who now has extremely large hands; his lover Rae (Taylor Iman Jones), who is a lovely singer with no arms; and a degenerate mad scientist (Ramiz Monsef), who tells everyone that he can cure the plague with one shot in the arm for a price. Two of Big Joe's friends who were executed, CJ (Christopher Livingston) and Coughlin (Jon Beavers), now come back as Rooks (birdlike creatures) and an assortment of prostitutes and a priest. The whole thing ends up with a crap game that will determine the life of Rae by Big Joe and the evil doctor.

Director Shana Cooper has assembled an outstanding cast of singers and dancers to make this a stimulating evening. Ira Merrigan is wonderful as Big Joe. He anchors the show with his poignant performance as the insecure and clueless person. Christopher Livingston as CJ and a Rook and Jon Beavers as Coughlin and a Rook give great backup to Big Joe and when the group sings they are harmoniously energizing. Taylor Iman Jones with her dynamic voice is impressive as Rae. Ramiz Monsef is pitch perfect as the perverted mad doctor. Eddie Lopez as Koko the clown is compelling and he has a mellifluous voice when singing. Lauren Hart, Danielle Herbert, Amy Lizardo, and Arthur Wise are splendid in in smaller roles.

There is a great onstage band consisting of David Rokeach on drums, Will Hendricks on bass, Karl Theobald on woodwinds, Casey Lee Hurt on piano and guitar, and Kevin Porter on brass. Bravo to Erika Chong Shuch for energy driven choreography, Sibyl Wickersheimer for a gorgeous set, Katherine O'Neill for whimsical costumes, and Russell H. Champa for inventive lighting—and a special bravo to director Shana Cooper for an imaginative night of entertainment.

The Unfortunates runs through April 10, 2016, at A.C.T.'s Strand Theatre, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Coming up next is Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses opening at A.C.T.'s Geary Theatre. 415 Geary St. San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit

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