A curious mix of styles is at work in History Theatre's "Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical," which opened Saturday.

Playwright David Hawley offers the lightest of framing devices -- an old newspaper reporter spinning tales about thugs who frequented our area in the 1930s. Composer Drew Jansen lubricates the stories with bouncy tunes and ballads out of Tin Pan Alley. On their own, these pieces might have filled 2 1/2 hours with pleasant, mundane entertainment.

But director Noah Bremer applies a finishing coat of noir and exaggeration that knocks our expectations of musical realism slightly off-kilter.

The result mostly satisfies, even if it feels as if we're watching different plays at times. Bremer draws out fine performances and creates texture within Erica Zaffarano's speakeasy set. His heightened aesthetic gives the piece staying power and elevates "Capital Crimes" to something more than a smiling bunch of John Dillingers flashing jazz hands and box steps.

Hawley's script focuses on the Karpis-Barker Gang -- notorious bank robbers and kidnappers who operated in St. Paul. Jake Endres portrays Nate Bomberg, a decades-long denizen of the cops beat for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A great storyteller with amiable presence, Endres also slips into ancillary characters, gasping for breath as a dying victim one second, and immediately popping up to reveal an episode's denouement.

E.J. Subkoviak lends his big, swaggering girth as J. Edgar Hoover, an insecure fellow whose nose for public relations peaked when he captured Alvin Karpis, Public Enemy No. 1, without having to fire a shot.

Hawley's script touches on celebrated incidents, such as the kidnappings of William Hamm and Edward Bremer. However, he also fills in (less successfully) with lazy scenes reminding us that bank robbers are people, too. Yes, sort of boring people.

The characters who best rise above this ennui are Matt Erkel's Fred Barker, a corpulent psychopath who just loves to kill, and Kimberly Richardson as his wife. Richardson gives a big, boozy performance, flopping around and slurring lines with a gravelly whiskey voice. Her portrayal best catches Bremer's style. Josiah Austen Gulden has the finest singing voice by far, but his Karpis makes no imprint with his bland personality.

Bremer's talent for pushing the boundaries achieves its zenith with the shootout that killed Ma Barker (Cathleen Fuller) -- using strobes to animate the machine-gun clatter and ribbons to represent streams of blood. This is a director whose work deserves to be seen.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299