Song and Dance

Gangstas' paradise: The guns of St. Paul at the Great American History Theatre

South St. Paul Police Chief Michael Messerich stood guard over a Thompson submachine gun at the premiere of the Great American History Theatre's The Gangster Musical this past Saturday. The Tommy gun was a legitimate artifact of St. Paul's gangland years, having been stolen from the police by Doc Barker, one of Ma Barker's nefarious sons, and used by him in two years' worth of bank robberies--the exact subject of the musical.

As Messerich titillated onlookers with stories of the machine gun, he unconsciously stroked the carbine of the weapon. This gesture was practiced and tender, so it was no surprise to discover that Messerich keeps the firearm in his office; one imagines that at stressful moments he reaches over and pets the thing as if it were a beloved puppy. Messerich was not alone in his disconcerting affection for St. Paul's sordid past. Next to him stood Paul MacCabbee, hawking his book Dillinger Slept Here as though he were a carnie. "It's got maps to speakeasies, folks!" he called out.

Similarly, actor Mark Rosenwinkel narrates the musical as though he were barking through a megaphone at the State Fair and enticing audiences to come see the Bonnie and Clyde death car. Rosenwinkel plays Nate Bomberg, a crime reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and it was upon Bomberg's writing that playwright David Hawley (also a Pioneer Press reporter) based much of his play. That's not to say the tone of this production is journalistic. When a scene opens with Bomberg declaring gleefully, "Time for something very bloody," and this declaration is then followed by several of the play's main characters twitching and contorting in a ghastly manner as machine-gun fire riddles their bodies--well, what we've got here is a scene out of EC Comics' War Against Crime.

Our tawdry tale opens with a madman standing on a chair in a courthouse and declaring, with his best Jimmy Cagney swagger, "I'm Alvin Karpis, Public Enemy No. 1!" Yet the history is questionable. After each patently absurd story, Bomberg calls out, "I'm not making this up, folks!"--but we suspect he is. Hawley's script takes pains to make light of authorities, especially in his cynical treatment of J. Edgar Hoover. Played by Garth Schumacher as a comical mix of strutting bombast and simpering pantywaist, Hoover preens in a mirror while singing, "One more miracle and I'll be sainted." In the meantime, the criminals roar around St. Paul in souped-up flivvers, cracking wise and having all the fun.

We accompany the Barrow gang on some of their more outrageous exploits. As played by John Watkins (as Karpis), Joseph St. James (as Fred Barker) and Matt Boehler (as Doc Barker), these criminals may be morons and psychopaths, but at least they know how to have a good time. "If you're looking for where your next of kin are," they sing while dancing a frenetic Charleston, "try looking for where the jazz and gin and sin are!" The musical's melodies and lyrics (by composer Drew Jansen) are consistently witty like this, and he opens by having Hoover complain in song, "We celebrate the deviants!"

The Gangster Musical is exactly such a celebration, and a welcome one. When the Cities' longest-running musical is Tony n' Tina's Wedding, it is indeed time for something very bloody.


Six blocks away but on the other side of the earth thematically, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts' Adventures in Love is a musical for those who are shocked--shocked!--at the irreverent contents of Tony n' Tina's Wedding. In its structure, which relies on humorous but innocuous vignettes, this new musical eerily recalls Free to Be...You & Me--in this instance exploring the love lives of young professionals.

But while producer Marlo Thomas had the good sense to include acerbic contributions from such anarchic wits as Shel Silverstein and Mel Brooks in her feminist children's film, Adventures in Love can boast no such pedigree. For example, lyricist Marcy Heisler's most illustrious credits include providing lyrics for the theme to CBS Television's Murphy Brown. Writers Shari Simpson and Charlie Shanian are known for their off-Broadway review Maybe Baby, It's You, which similarly examined the humor and heartbreak of yuppie romance. A cynic might be tempted to believe that Adventures in Love consists of excised bits of Maybe Baby, foisted off on a presumably less-sophisticated Midwestern audience who would not mind that it is B-grade material.

The musical's few clever scenes, such as an embarrassingly intimate dinner discussion between two potential lovers, are ruined by cloying sentiment and endless repetition of limited material. Actor Kevin R. Free, for example, has a recurring monologue as a man whose gifts for his wife succeed only in infuriating her. It's a funny enough gag the first time, and Free plays it with endearingly dorky mannerisms, flapping his arms and scowling with frustration. But by the fourth time he's dragged out onstage to repeat the shtick, it has grown wearisome. "Who knew there would be so many ways for beating this into the ground," one character sings. Indeed.

Some of the comedy is simply nonsensical, such as a duet in which two lovers sing faux-salacious folderol. "I'll renew your passport," one sings, and the other responds with "I'll spackle your wall." I think I understand what the latter imagery means, but eww.

At the end of the opening-night performance, several members of the audience rose to provide a standing ovation, Adventures in Love being a musical and thereby virtually guaranteed such an ovation from chronically enthusiastic Midwesterners. Later, as the audience exited the Ordway, a piano fell over on its side, producing a horrendous clatter. It too received a standing ovation. I'm not making this up, folks.

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