Courage will not save you, George Bernard Shaw said, but it will show that your souls are alive. Substitute the word "music" for "courage" and you have a thumbnail statement of the theme of "The Unfortunates."
The groundbreaking new musical by Jon Beavers, Casey Hurt, Ian Merrigan and Ramiz Monsef, directed by Shana Cooper, which had its world premiere Sunday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's intimate Thomas Theatre, is a glorious, bluesy, mythical, downtrodden, uplifting paean to the power of music to stir the soul.
"The Unfortunates" runs through through Nov. 2 at the Thomas Theatre on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. Tickets cost $25, $59 or $71. For more information, call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.
Beavers, Merrigan and Ramiz are 3 Blind Mice, a New York City hip-hop a capella group. They created the play, along with Cooper and Hurt, under the aegis of the OSF, over the past three years. That's testimony to the importance of regional theaters to introducing important new work in an era that Broadway wants sure-fire revivals.
As a group of circa-War War I soldier-prisoners await execution, they sing the seminal blues tune "The St. James Infirmary Blues" to keep their spirits up. One by one they're taken away by a black-clad enemy soldier, and we hear the shots.
When Joe (Ian Merrigan), the last man, begins to sing the song, he is magically transported to the song's world at the corner by the square, where they're serving drinks as usual and the usual crowd is there: hustlers, hookers, pimps, crapshooters, clowns, losers, midnight ramblers.
It's a surreal world, with World War I imagery, comic book art, talking birds whose beaks look like the costumes worn by 14th-century doctors fighting the bubonic plague.
Joe learns that the long-time lord of this squalid kingdom, King Jesse (Jon Beavers), has died, and that in this world he is now no longer plain Joe but the Big Joe of the St. James Infirmary-world. Blessed/cursed with really gigantic fists, he was King Jesse's right-hand man and has now inherited the bar/gambling joint/brothel.
King Jesse's corpse is still present, in a big, black coffin. It's coveted by the Rooks (Jon Beavers, Rodney Gardiner), dark, magical birds that prey on corpses and see the plague as a boon. In real life rooks are an omnivorous Eurasian cousin of the crow, and not particularly sinister. But did I mention the plague?
It is raging, and it's invariably fatal, so the revelers at the seedy club have a bit of a Kit Kat Club thing going, a la "Cabaret," where they party hardy to shut out the world outside.
Cue up the tunes, which unfortunately are not listed in the program. There's a lovely Southern gospel number that sounds like it should be called "Lord Lay Me Down," a snaky, bad-girl blues that may be titled "They Call Me Trouble," a funky rocker that sounds like it should be "I Want You."
The music is good, rootsy stuff, provided by author/music director Hurt, who also plays guitar, keyboardist Jesse Baldwin, drummer Mike Fitch and bassist Joseph Porto. Gospel slides into blues segues into rock slides into spoken-word hip-hop.
If the musical does nothing else, it figures to introduce a segment of graying theatergoers to the reality that hip-hop is a wide river, of which the likes of gangsta rap is but one little stream. The hip-hop rhythms here are a powerful part of heightened speech at key moments, much as Shakespeare has a king speak in towering metaphors in iambic pentameter in contrast to the prose spoken by commoners. There's even all that hip-hop (and Shakespearean) interior rhyming.
Joe falls in love with Rae (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), Jesse's beautiful but armless daughter (a complementing deformity to Joe's outsized fists?) who is of course doomed to get the plague, a la the poor bad girls of all those old cautionary folk songs.
A villain appears in the form of Stack-O-Lee (Ramiz Monsef), an import from another song cycle, the one based on a St. Louis, Mo., pimp who in 1895 shot a man dead for messing with his Stetson hat. The Stetson is a motif that also turns up in some versions of "St James Infirmary," in which the narrator asks to be buried wearing his Stetson.
Stack was the first man who defeated King Jesse at dice and won a night with Rae, after which she became a prostitute. This sets up a lethal enmity between Joe and Stack that never quite pays off. In part that's because Big Joe is trapped in his big-fisted identity and inching toward community with his fellow St. Jamesians, where maybe he dimly senses salvation.
There's a lot of doubling of roles, and Monsef, who plays Stack, is also the other villain, a greedy doctor selling a quack anti-plague nostrum to those who can fork up the dough. In this role he victimizes Rae again. Isn't it about time Big Joe does something about this dude?
The central weakness of "The Unfortunates" is that the clash between Joe and Stack — there's a lot of juice there — is not developed more fully. The Stack role could be bigger. There are also a couple of spots that aren't dead, but they're slow. A new play can almost always benefit from some tweaking.
But "The Unfortunates" is a remarkable achievement. It's a joyous musical about community whose twin poles are love and fear. It whisks us to a mythical place and with magnificent theatricality affirms that tough kernel of the human spirit that cannot be defeated.
Not the least of its riches is that it puts hip-hop squarely into the great river that is the blues and all that came before and after.
Life without music would be a mistake, Nietzsche said. To which 3 Blind Mice would add, yeah, and so would death.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.