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Snappy tunes, sharp cast will get you in the 'End'

Neither playwright Bertolt Brecht nor composer Kurt Weill had ever stepped foot out of Germany and on to the streets of Chicago when, in 1929, they penned "Happy End," their "melodrama with songs." But that didn't stop them from telling the story of a bunch of ruthless gangsters who hang out in a place called Bill's Beer Hall, and how those mobsters found themselves in unlikely interaction with members of a Salvation Army outpost.

Now if that story line sounds oddly familiar, you might be thinking of the similar plot in another musical, Frank Loesser's "Guys & Dolls," which appeared on Broadway more than two decades later. As it happens, the particular sound and political fury of the two shows differ, but they do have one thing in common -- sensational scores. And in the Brown Couch Theatre Company's surprising snappy and well-cast revival of "Happy End," the sensational Brecht-Weill score is sung with style and sophistication.

The song list says it all, with such now-standard cabaret classics as "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailors' Tango," "The Mandalay Song" and "Surabaya Johnny." There are some deftly worked traditional-style hymns in the mix, too.

Set in the days leading up to Christmas 1919, the story involves the unexpected romance between Bill Cracker (Damian Vanore), an arrogant gangster who is down on his luck and under the steely thumb of "The Fly" (a scissors-sharp Heather Townsend), and his encounter with the fiercely determined Lt. Lillian Holiday, a k a "Hallelujah Lil" (a terrific turn by the very pretty, silvery-voiced Andrea Prestinario, who does an outstanding job with the very difficult "Surabaya Johnny").

Lil tries everything in her soul-saving arsenal -- including romance -- to bring Cracker over to her side. And if she has to sacrifice her own soul (and enjoy her own liberation) in the process, so much the better.

Micky York, who skillfully doubles as director and musical director, works with Michael Feingold's adaptation (created for a 1977 production that starred Meryl Streep as Lil). He has tapped a slew of young actors with first-rate voices and just the right larger-than-life personalities. They include Carmen Aiello (full of fire in "Song of the Big Shot"), Ryan Guhde (excellent in "Mandalay"), the very funny Jeffrey A. Bouthiette, John Blick, Ryan Patrick Dolan and flapper Dehlia Miller as the sinners; Kevin Bishop, Susan Veronika Adler, Annika Johansson, Mark Banik and Kate Leydig as the savers; Erik Koelle as a cop, and Andra Velis Simon as the hardworking pianist at a tattered upright. (All have been stylishly costumed by designer Erin Fast.)

Who wins the battle here, the gangsters or the poor Salvation Army recruits? Well, best to quote the show's crucial line, which calls for unity against the real enemy, for "robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one."


When: Through Dec. 30
Where: Brown Couch Theatre Company at Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark
Tickets: $18-$20
Call: (312) 409-2010

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