Canada is not an obvious breeding ground for great white rappers — remember Snow? — but the Caucasian Canucks behind “Bash’d!: A Gay Rap Opera” have skills. Their 65-minute concert-cum-musical, transferring to Off Broadway’s Zipper after berths in Canada and the New York Fringe Festival, not only puts a smart spin on gay rights but also delivers some radio-worthy hip-hop.
Musically and dramaturgically, the rapped-through show is a study in aggression. Telling the story of a gay Canadian couple whose marriage is marred by violence, narrators T-Bag (Chris Craddock) and Feminem (Nathan Cuckow) argue whether the young lovers should fight back or simply move on.
Duo also play every other character in the story, voicing perspectives from radical activism to staunch homophobia.
That’s a potent approach. The gay community has long been divided over its relationship to straight culture, and the increasing acceptance of gay marriage only propels both sides: From one vantage point, marriage equality grants everyone the same human dignity, but from another, it assimilates gay people into hostile hetero traditions.
T-Bag and Feminem debate this issue in blunt political terms, but Craddock and Cuckow, also the show’s lyricists, shrewdly leave the rhetoric to their narrators. The rest of the characters embody the human side of gay rights, as when naive country boy Dillon (Cuckow) falls for street-smart city kid Jack (Craddock). Both men have archetypal qualities, but they also have specific, relatable traits.
Thesps’ sweet-natured chemistry makes it easy to accept love is blooming, and sharp acting choices turn secondary characters like a timid support group leader and Dillon’s conservative father into more than political signposts. Each facet of the gay rights debate is taken seriously, and no one — not even Jack and Dillon — is portrayed as perfect. When consequences erupt in the final scene, the script insists everyone share the blame.
A mawkish coda tacks on an unnecessary moral, but otherwise, the show leaves the audience with a refreshing opportunity to make up its own mind.
But “Bash’d” is more than just social issues. Craddock and Cuckow include plenty of comedy, and director Ron Jenkins adds his own funny touches. A song about the various stereotypes in a gay club becomes a satirical tour de force, with the narrators embodying everything from brainless twinks to militant lesbians (and finding examples of each in the audience).
And while it’s easy for hip-hop shows to devolve into rappers standing still, Jenkins crafts a string of expressive moments. Sometimes, for instance, one thesp silently lip-syncs with the other, suggesting that a particular verse has universal weight. In one moment, Jack leaps onto Dillon’s back to rap about how much he loves him, physicalizing the couple’s supportiveness.
As rappers, both thesps have an impressive, hypnotic flow, and they manage to maintain it even as they act their words. (Rapping with emotional emphasis is difficult, since pauses and inflections can sabotage the rhythm of a verse.)
The duo’s lyrics are as smooth as their delivery, with only an occasional awkward slip.
Aaron Macri’s music matches every twist of the story, cheekily referencing Eminem or launching a throbbing, club-ready assault. His grace note comes when the boys get married: As they rap about their commitment, Macri swirls a sample from Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” into a sunny dance beat. The music is so joyful and engaging that it seems like the perfect soundtrack for falling in love. It’s another way the show turns a cultural movement into satisfying entertainment.