Rap and opera — an unlikely combination. Then add "gay" to the mix.
What you get is "Bash'd," a furious, fast-moving, hip-hop entertainment that expertly expands the boundaries of musical theater while championing a defiant call for gay civil rights and an end to prejudice and violence.
Don't worry though. Despite the rhetoric, it's not all polemics. As one of the lyrics proclaims, "it's Romeo meets Romeo," complete with an ample supply of scatological language, swaggering attitude and a keen, often hilarious sense of observation about gay life.
The story is told by two gay celestial rappers, played by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, who also wrote the show. Dressed in white (accented with flourishes of pink), the rappers (called T-Bag and Feminem) act out the story of two star-crossed lovers, Dillon and Jack, who meet in a big-city gay bar in Canada. Sort of gay Everymen.
Dillon is from the sticks, bringing with him the baggage of small-town insularity: a disapproving Dad, a timid Mom and a profound sense of confusion. Jack comes from a more accepting urban environment, not to mention a family that includes two gay fathers.
Their meeting sets up the evening's biggest laughs — a parade of gay-bar stereotypes. Drag queens are the least of it in these rappers' laundry list of regular bar patrons. The evening leads to moving in and eventually to marriage. It's Canada, after all.
But the couple's domestic bliss is shattered when Jack is attacked on the street, a brutal assault that eventually unravels their relationship and leads to even more tragedy.
If this sounds depressing, it's not — despite the occasional twinges of sermonizing. That's because Craddock (the shorter, more stocky one) and Cuckow (taller, a little more angular) possess undeniable energy. Their physicality is relentless and their linguistic dexterity amazing. Rap, after all, is about the words. And the lyrics, while often profane, are surprisingly unforced. But even then, they are pressed into service to tell the story.
There is also a melody to their movements in the show, which has pulsating music by Aaron Macri. Director Ron Jenkins never lets the momentum flag even when the show hurtles toward its more serious final moments.
"Bash'd," which runs about 75 minutes, opened Monday at off-Broadway's Zipper Factory Theatre, a cheerfully rundown space that would seem to be the right venue for thumbing your nose at the establishment, theatrical or otherwise. It arrived by way of Canada and several fringe festivals, including one last year in New York, and received a 2008 GLAAD Media Award for outstanding theater. Judging from the sterling efforts of Craddock and Cuckow, the prize was well deserved.