Being a big history buff of the gangster era in St. Paul, I always thought that the stories of the Barker-Karpis gang warranted their own play. But the History Theatre did better: it made not only a play based on them, it produced a play about the whole gang. The current production of Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical is a revival of the theatre’s 2000 production of The Gangster Musical, which was written by David Hawley with music and lyrics by Drew Jansen. In this latest version of the musical, the show has been tweaked and songs have been added. Noah Bremer directs this new version with interesting, but sometimes mixed results.
The show does an effective job of capturing the culture and the people of the time. It does not overly romanticize the gangster life, which such gangster shows are prone to do, but it also does not condemn those who chose a life of violent crime. The play is designed to make the audience ponder why men chose the life that they did. Being a gangster definitely had its perks, but it also had obvious downsides. More compelling is the play’s focus on the women in these men’s lives: their mothers, girlfriends, and wives who continually paid the price of their men’s lifestyle by having to live on an emotional roller coaster caused by the deadly consequences of the profession. The ironic part is that they deal with these serious consequences in a production otherwise dominated by campiness.
The play’s structure makes Nate Bomber, a local reporter of the time, narrator of the show. He relates the numerous stories of how the gangsters operated in St. Paul, including the kidnapping of a local tycoon, William Hamm. He also relates the stories of Ma Barker and her sons and Fred Barker and Doc Barker. Jake Endres does a credible job of playng Bomber as well as some of the minor characters in this show.
Bremer does a good job of weaving campy songs with the serious overtones of the subject matter. He stages the shootout resulting in the death of Ma Barker masterfully, using both physicality and imagery. This is the most exciting scene in the play.
The songs are upbeat with shades of Tin Pan Alley. My favorite is “Perfection,” a tuneful song peroformed with hilarious camp by E.J. Subkoviak, who portrays J. Edgar Hoover trying to make his national reputation with the capture of Alvin Karpis. But the songs are not all of the same caliber: several are forgettable and muddle the show. The final song, “Incomplete Man,” ends the show on too low a note.
Our ongoing fascination and romanticizing of this lawless heritage is seen in the popularity of the ongoing gangster tours offered in St. Paul as well as the popularity of movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. This production is a worthy effort to capture in action and music a very violent part of our local history.
This production can be seen using discount vouchers from the Daily Planet’s Theater All Year program—six vouchers for just $99.
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