There were three stories on stage the night I attended “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King.” The musical introduces the audience to Babel, a great Russian-Jewish writer of the first half of the 20th century—praised by Sergei Eisenstein and killed by Joseph Stalin—shortly after one of his friends has been murdered by the secret police. Babel gathers some pals, including the writer Maxim Gorky, to put on an entertainment in the hope of winning over important friends in high places. That diversion is the second story, a musical-within-the-musical that is based on Babel’s best-known book, “Tales of Odessa,” and focuses on his most famous character: Benya Krik, the gangster king. A Jewish mobster who exploited his co-religionists in Odessa, the city he ruled in the Ukraine, Krik also protected them during pogroms.
But there was a third story as well at the Kraine Theater: Two days earlier, the actor playing Babel, Stephen Vincent Brennan—who also directed the production and co-wrote the book—took ill and had to be hospitalized. Substituting in the central part of the titular author at the last minute was Denis Woychuk.
Woychuk has an impressive array of talents. A former judge and lawyer, he created the 2008 musical “Attorney for the Damned.” He has written the lyrics and co-written the music and the book for “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King.” He is the owner of the KGB Bar, upstairs from the Kraine, and of the Kraine itself. But included among his talents is not acting, at least judging from his performance, still on book, that I caught. It’s possible that this setback unnerved the rest of the cast. The only actor giving a crisp, clear performance is Juliana Smith, as Babel’s former mistress and the wife of the head of the Soviet secret police. It obviously would be fairer to critique the show with its cast intact, but nobody is sure when and if Brennan will be able to return, as the musical is scheduled to run only through Nov. 25.
Even without this disruption, “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King” would best be viewed as a work in progress. What it has going for it is some music that rocks, the kind of appealingly hoarse-voiced bluesy and jazzy numbers that I associate with singer-guitarist Leon Redbone. (I didn’t detect even a grace note of Russian influence, but who cares?) Denny Blake is the primary songwriter. He also plays a mean guitar in the four-piece onstage band, which is enhanced by three terrific backup singers who are smartly incorporated into the action of the musical.
In keeping with the manic multitasking of the “Babel” team, Blake also portrays one of Babel’s friends, a jazz singer named Utisov, who in the musical-within-the-musical plays Krik. It is a great conceit to present, à la “Man of La Mancha,” both the straitened circumstances of the author and a dramatization of his tales. Still, it will take more work to make the two worlds in “Isaac Babel and the Gangster King” distinct and compelling.
Presented by KGB Bar and Horse Trade Theater Group at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St., NYC. Nov. 8–25. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Critic’s Score: C