For many theatregoers, the jury is still out on whether real rap has a place in musical theatre. Those theatregoers need to attend more musicals, because the much-maligned musical genre is making quiet - and not-so-quiet - inroads into a medium frequently so behind the times that Spring Awakening can be seen as the height of hip.
But for true daring, and a glimpse of how joyous and moving a rap musical can be, one need only progress to the Village Theatre, where Bash'd: A Gay Rap Opera is playing as part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival. This import from Alberta, Canada, has most everything true connoisseurs demand: a meaningful story told in a moving, musical way; witty, inventive lyrics that not only catch the ear immediately but linger long afterward; and dynamic performers creating characters of great strength and subtle shading of personality.
What you should not expect, however, is a fine family show free of offense. Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, the authors and actors of this hurricane-brisk 60-minute show, only want to spread their outrage about hate crimes both physical and psychological. Their anger is real, but it's resulted in a show so powerful and so much fun, it's tough to think of a better place to be than right smack in their way.
They play two rappers, T-Bag (Craddock) and Feminem (Cuckow), who have apparently returned from the afterlife (judging by their all-white costumes, replete with angel wings) to tell a cautionary tale about two young men whose course of true love ran far rockier than most. Small-town boy Dylan, on his own after being kicked out by his unaccepting father, meets Jack, an experienced club-hopper from the more-accepting city (and possessing two understanding fathers of his own), in a happening night spot, and hook up. But they quickly discover that their attraction runs much deeper than a one-night stand encourages, leading them to move in together and (as soon as Canada's Equal Marriage act passes) commit for life. But when Jack is viciously attacked after the wedding, Dylan sets out to enact his own brand of revenge.
The story may not be an involved one, but Craddock and Cuckow make it incredibly involving. Craddock's short, stocky frame suggests the fire he displays in the harsher moments of the story, but don't anticipate the tenderness and quiet understanding he brings to more intimate moments. Cuckow's uncertain facade melts in the most shocking and sudden of ways when Dylan is faced with losing the man he loves. Their instantaneous morphings into other club dwellers across the full spectrum of the gay experience makes for the play's funniest scene, but they bring just as much passion to all the many characters they play - even the most vicious.
The vitality and energy they display would shame most nuclear reactors, which director Ron Jenkins utilizes to the fullest in his staging. He's made the entire evening into a kinetic barrage of dance, movement, and song that barely ebbs even when Craddock and Cuckow trip up on their lines. (Given the ferocity with which they attacked their rapping, I found it astonishing they only slipped up twice at the performance I attended.)
As for those songs, born-and-bred rap haters won't be swayed, and those for whom no leeway exists in ill-rhyming lyrics (even in a style like this one where it's practically de rigeuer) will probably throw fits. And a case could easily be made that the music (composed by Aaron Macri) and beats are on the unimaginative side, leading to songs that pack wildly different emotional content frequently sounding very much the same.
But Craddock and Cuckow's machine-gun-quick recitations are invigorating, and supply a gilt-edged frame for a winning evening of comedy, tragedy, and unapologetic romance unmatched by most other new musicals New York has seen this year. Bash'd will hardly be everyone's idea of a musical, but as it's a show about tolerance, it deserves some from those who are truly curious about where the musical is headed, and what glories it can accomplish when writers and actors know not just which rules to break, but which must be followed.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission