Prologue Theatre Productions, at the Theatre Building.

Though Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Happy End predates Guys and Dolls by almost a quarter century, it makes that musical look like kid stuff. Charting the now-familiar journey of a sweet Salvation Army worker into the depths of a criminal underworld, Happy End is set in 1919 and drips with enough cynicism and witty nastiness to make Frank Loesser blush. Despite Brecht’s sporadically brittle, aged moralizing about capitalist corruption, Weill’s beer-hall score is still as lively and street-smart as a brilliant sot in a corner saloon.

In this ambitious but flawed revival, Prologue Theatre misses a golden opportunity to make a worthy musical contemporary and relevant. Focusing on superficial period goofiness rather than political or social subtext, Prologue goes for campy humor, playing up the hackneyed underworld characters, among them a Chinese mob boss with a Fu Manchu mustache and a mastery of pidgin English, a cackling henchman nicknamed Baby Face, and a vampy female gangster called the Fly. Whenever the songs stop and the stage is given over to these caricatures, the show stalls.

The hit-or-miss supporting cast give Weill’s eerie, lovely songs the treatment they deserve only part of the time. Though Michael Reyes and Erik Barnes have serviceable voices, they lack the polish to project and enunciate clearly while keeping up with the down-and-dirty band in “Song of the Big Shot” and “Mandalay Song.” But Marnie Nicolella’s reading of “Surabaya-Johnny” and the company’s rendition of “Bilbao Song” are superbly moving. These tunes make you realize that Weill and Brecht can still kick Les Miz’s ass anytime.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mitch Canoff.