There is nothing in this world premiere, produced by Masquerade Theatre, that approaches the program cover art. Two men (the Maceo brothers, Rose and Sam) stand at pier's end with an expanse of water leading to a strip of island beyond. Seagulls fly overhead. Sleeves rolled up, they look in opposite directions. Wearing a fedora, Rose (Luther Chakurian) is wary and edgy; Sam (Michael J. Ross) in newsboy cap looks somewhat hopeful, except his clenched fist awaits a fight. Behind them blazes a huge sun. The image looks period because of the hats and suspenders. It also looks sultry and ready for action. But there is nothing the least bit hot about this bland musical.
Based on a true story -- the real Maceo brothers were inveterate bootleggers and gamblers who ruled Galveston's underworld for decades and battled Al Capone for control of the island's profitable iniquities -- however, Rose and Sam were hardly the naughty little angels of Damon Runyon land, as the authors make them out to be. Papa would be so proud," the brothers boast as their most opulent nightclub and casino, The Balinese Room, opens to spectacular success. Sure, Papa would be proud, if he wanted his sons to be gangsters.
We'd accept this Godfather-as-Robin Hood syndrome -- glorifying the American bandit -- if the show possessed style, grace, wit, or even low-rent charm. It has none of the above. Instead, its plodding scenario by Andreé Newport, Dr. Robert Wilkins, and Mark York teeters in some musical comedy neverland that was out of date in the '20s. Scenes don't flow into each other, they stop without warning. Characters and events appear without set-up. Years pass for no reason. The Maceo brothers don't change or grow, they just open another club in some new decade.
Except for the standout costumes worn by Laura Babbitt, as aspiring actress Edna, the clothes are off-the-rack without distinction. The wigs are horrendous, never quite covering the actors' own hair, and the miking is close and overdone, when it's done at all. Where is the famed Masquerade magic?
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Granted, the company veterans cannot fix a bad script, no matter how hard they try to sell this tired material. Ross and Babbitt acquit themselves admirably, if only because their characters have a bit more flesh than the others. The score by Mark York, breezily conducted by Dominique Royem, has tantalizing hints of Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman but without their sweetness and vitality. "If Papa Did It," the brothers' early credo, has a beguiling Broadway flavor; Edna's "Doin' My Own Thing" is a lively Charleston any flapper would love; and "2528 Post Office Street," saucily sung by the island's madam (Allison Sumrall) has a showstopping Sophie Tucker quality. The rest of the numbers are oddly unmemorable or, worse, extraneous, although they all have much better lyrics than tunes.
This musical is a mess. If the authors hope, as the program states, to take this show to Broadway, dream on. The real work has yet to begin.
The show runs through October 9 at Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-861-7045.