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FROM THIS EPISODE

Razzle-Dazzle, Hotsy-Totsy

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

To most people, the city of Chicago conjures images of advertising executives, sports fans, deep dish pizza and sprawling John Hughes-ian suburbs. It would be hard to imagine that eighty years ago Chicago was the most lawless city in the Union were it not for the entertainment industry, which for decades has used &quotthe; second city" as a sort of 20th century Wild West. Books, movies and television shows have all helped solidify the reputation of 1920's Chicago as an exciting town filled with flamboyant gangsters, corrupt officials, and roaring speakeasies flowing with bootleg gin.

This combination of sex, booze, and nightclubs makes prohibition-era Chicago a perfect backdrop for musical theater. The best evidence of this is, of course, the Bob Fosse spectacle titled simply Chicago.

The movie version--since becoming the first musical in a generation to be both a box office hit and win the Best Picture Oscar--has sort of eclipsed the stage show. A three-week run at the Pantages Theater, however, reveals that Chicago, while certainly camera friendly, still belongs on a live stage.

The touring production seen here in Los Angeles doesn't quite have quite the same kick in its step that Chicago had nine years ago when the revival took Broadway by storm--but the singing and dancing is of a high, if not tip-top, quality. The one interesting bit of casting is singer Patti LaBelle in the role of Matron &quotMama;" Morton. The R&B; legend gives the number &quotWhen; You're Good to Mama" a diva turn, transforming the finale of Kander & Ebb's showstopper into a scat solo.

It must be said that &quotMama;" Morton, Billy Flynn and Roxie Hart all inhabit a nostalgic, mythologized Chicago. The musical was written in the 1970's, a time when gangsters and tommy guns were safely in the past. But even at the height of Chicago's notoriety, people could sense the musical pulse that raced through this dangerous city.

In 1929, the two men who had just revolutionized musical theater with their work The Threepenny Opera a year earlier, decided to set their next singspiel in the windy city. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Happy End premiered in Berlin, but it takes place in the heart of Chicago's gangland. It centers on a romance between the feared heavy, Billy Cracker, and a bluenosed Salvation Army worker named Sister Lillian Holiday.

Fans of musicals will no doubt see a similarity between this plot and the story of Guys & Dolls. Certainly Happy End was an inspiration for Frank Loesser (if not Damon Runyon), but in addition to its historical importance, it's also an excellent piece of music drama.

The work opens (in this English translation by Michael Feingold) with a satirical ode to capitalism entitled &quotHosannah; Rockefeller." From there the musical uses its plot involving organized crime to act as an analogy to big business.

Happy End doesn't quite match The Threepenny Opera in terms of broad social criticism, instead it tries to focus on the lives to the two lovers, and how both the missionary and the mobster must abandon the &quotmorals;" of their professions, in order to find a sense of honor and justice.

Naturally, the title of the show, Happy End, should not be taken literally. Brecht and Weill's musical comedy aims to provoke as well as entertain--and happily, this staging does both. The singing does not quite do justice to the music, but every other aspect of the production, especially the acting and the direction, is first rate...or as they would have put it back then, &quotHotsy-Totsy.;"

Happy End runs at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through March 27, Chicago continues at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood until February 20.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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