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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Thugs: A Musical Mafiasco
at Knutzen Family Theatre

Never wanting to deny a new musical a chance to go forth and grow, I must admit having a rather hard time finding a whole lot of positive things to say about playwright/lyricist/director Dave Tucker's Thugs: A Musical Mafiasco, which is remotely inspired by Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters. Clearly, the City of Federal Way and Knutzen Family Theatre who sponsored the show (revised from a prior premiere production at Burien Little Theatre) saw potential in the show. But Tucker has made many mistakes with it, not the least of which is not entrusting it to a different director, who might have shown more objectivity in making cuts and changes. Composer Kim Douglass has written a number of clever and ear-pleasing tunes, and a game cast gives its all, but Thugs proves more tedious than tantalizing, wearing out its welcome at a poky 2 and one-quarter hour running time.

Set in Shady Groves, Illinois, near Chicago, circa 1929, Thugs tells the convoluted tale of two Dons (who prove to be named Don, and not Mafioso Don's at all); their thwarted love-struck son and daughter; two dumb sidekick gangsters allotted nearly star status; a blowsy, nosy "Mama" who runs an Italian restaurant; a pair of heterosexual lovers who both try to pass themselves off as a beloved and supposedly deceased mob hood; and a mysterious figure called the Shark who slinks in for act two to tie up loose ends.

With shadows of not only Servant but Romeo and Juliet, Chicago, The Fantasticks and Guys and Dolls looming over this show, it was bound to suffer in comparison.  Douglass' tunes, attractive as many of them are, don't sound particularly as if they might have come from 1929. Still, they provide a lift and a lilt to the proceedings that the book and (generally) the lyrics don't.  The best song in the show is the opener "Mafiasco," and it should also be the show's title rather than the lugubrious Thugs: A Musical Mafiasco. A love ballad for the "Don's" son and daughter, "Someday," is reminiscent (in a good way) of songs like Little Shop of Horrors's "Somewhere That's Green" and "Romeo and Juliet" from Reefer Madness, in blending a sweet melody with rather zany lyrics (the pair dream of a "happy" married life like Bonnie and Clyde had!).  Sadly, Tucker has penned mostly banal lyrics, filled with simplistic moon and June rhymes which sabotage several of Douglass' melodies, and what is clearly ear-marked as the show-stopper, "Badda Boom, Badda-Bing," falls embarrassingly flat, and then comes back as a needless reprise.

The cast is a mixed bag experience casting-wise but give their all to this losing cause. Thaddeus Alexander and Ashley Coates as the benighted lovers Romy and Julia are quite fetching and vocally attractive. Alexander is asked to "keep it gay" for much of his portrayal (turns out he's a flowery poet but not a girly man) and he gives 110% to his big number "Am I Swishy," keeping it from being offensive to gay audience members with its stereotypical lyrics. As Don Montecarlo, Marcus Wolland creates a droll blowhard with just a twist of vintage Jackie Gleason thrown in. Christopher Bange as the Shark (who is revealed to be someone else of course) is utterly hilarious and the most inventive actor on the stage. Whoever found him his banana colored suit (no costumer is listed), well done! 

As the mobsters (who could easily be the long lost brothers of Benny Southstreet and Nicely-Nicely Johnson) Adam Othman is amiable but too low-key as Louie, while Christian Doyle as Nick tends to upstage himself so often that many of his lyrics are lost.  Jennifer Hill is flat-out way too young and attractive for us to buy her as the imperious Mama Risotto. Mark Banton doesn't convince as Don Cappuccino, though likable and an able laugh getter. He also seemed tentative on his vocals and some of his lines. And as the disguised other pair of lovers, Julian Schrenzel as Joey seems like a Sky Masterson in search of a Loesser ballad rather than the jazz style tunes he has been given here, while Anna-Marie Devine as Gina has good character sense but struggles with the fact that much of her music seems to sit uncomfortably between her head and chest voices.

Composer Douglass is an old hand at the piano and skillfully leads the slick four-piece band of musicians. Nathan Rodda's unit set is easy to look at and serves the needs of the tale admirably.

But my advice to the author/director for the next incarnation of Thugs: A Musical Mafiasco is, get a play doctor to work with you on the book and lyrics, change the title as mentioned above, and trust your work to another director.

Thugs: A Musical Mafiasco runs through February 10 at Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way, For more information on line go to www.kftevents.com.



- David Edward Hughes



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