Gangster Musical

In Theater 1010's latest musical, a Salvation Army "broad" is reluctantly attracted to a suave, gray-suited gangster with a taste for dangerous risks; a stern, disapproving superior officer suspects her loyalty; and a crew of crooks struggles to keep their way of life despite some Bible thumpers' best efforts. It sounds like Guys and Dolls, but it isn't.

Happy End was written in 1929, ages before Frank Loesser's Broadway classic, by the Threepenny Opera team of Bertolt Brecht (lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music), along with Elizabeth Hauptmann, author of the original play. The show seems to have inspired Guys and Dolls, but it breaks boundaries in ways Loesser never did.

This edgy, gritty, cynical romp covers some territory that Threepenny did previously, but it is well worth seeing, not least because of Weill's strident, memorable score and the strong, vibrant performances of a multitalented and energetic ensemble under David Fuller's well-paced, visually arresting direction.

Happy End begins in Bill's Beer Hall, a Chicago franchise. The original Bill's, we're told in a rousing drinking song, was in Bilbao, Spain, but became defunct under rather unclear circumstances. Having just threatened the pharmacist Prinzmayer, who owes protection money, a crime gang led by the ruthless Dr. Nakamura, aka "The Governor" (Greg Horton), is plotting Prinzmayer's destruction.

Into the mix saunters Bill Cracker (Joey Piscopo), the gray-suited hero. He has just knocked off Nakamura's top rival, a gangster so creative, he orchestrated a robbery of the Niagara Falls train by turning his gang into a wedding party, with himself as the captivating bride.

This makes Bill a "big shot"—and a liability. Nakamura and the boys plot to frame him for the pharmacy job, but they are foiled by a self-destructively honest Salvation Army officer, Hallelujah Lil (Lorinda Lisitza), who sacrifices everything that's important to her in order to tell the truth and save Bill's life. If only, Brecht and Hauptmann seem to sigh, the rest of humanity could live up to Lil's example.

Of course, they don't. In this script, unlike The Threepenny Opera, Hauptmann and Brecht are more satirical than didactic. Of the innocent Lil's fall from the Salvation Army's grace, Bill observes, "It ain't my fault that Jesus fired you 'cause he's got a dirty mind." The stupid young gangster Baby Face, when told that his alibi is an "intimate dinner party," tells the cops he was at "an inanimate party."

Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold's translation either preserves the original's wordplay or invents some new gems. "Please to keep your organ out of shakedown operation," Nakamura tells his church-organ-hawking associate. "This is serious business." The one weakness is the Asian Nakamura's perpetual confusion of his L's and R's. This leads to a tongue-twisting disaster when he tries to say "revolver," but it soon gets predictable, and, as a racial stereotype, it jars with the piece's overall humanism.

There are many standouts in the strong company. Lisitza acts Lil with confidence, as a worldly, world-weary missionary. This playing against type keeps Lil engaging. Lisitza is also a brilliant singer, a belter with a full soprano voice modulated by moments of sweetness but never weakness.

Other notable performances include Dave Tillistrand as a cross-dressing gangster, who sings in a powerful baritone and gives a bad-drag portrayal of "Madam Goddam," the legendary bawd of Mandalay; Judith Jarosz and Cristiane Young as two surprisingly similar and formidable godmothers, of the crime syndicate and the God syndicate; and Timothy McDonough as Baby Face, whose agile slapstick is almost as hilarious as his facial expressiveness.

As Bill, Piscopo is alternatingly threatening and frightened. His swagger transparently disguises the character's insecurity. He writes the character in his body language, which is always specific, in character, and in the moment. Piscopo also directed the "heist film," a silent-movie rendition of the gang's comical bank heist. The onscreen action is coordinated seamlessly with live action in this clear and inventive multimedia moment.

Set and lighting designer Giles Hogya creates an atmosphere halfway between Berlin cabaret and Chicago dive bar. The stage is crowded with a jumble of simple furniture and theatrical clutter, with a spotlight standing dead center. The hats of the gang's victims hang menacingly on a far wall, and blue lighting washes Lisitza's face with a deathly cold hue during her most chilling songs. The costumes illustrate the characters well, and I especially liked Nakamura's silver cobra-headed sword cane.

Several of the actors double as musicians, with their playing, directed by Michael Harren, well synchronized with the singers. In short, Theater 1010 deserves kudos for bringing the undeservedly obscure Happy End so riotously to life.

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