Thursday, December 08, 2011

THEATER: Bonnie & Clyde

Photo/Nathan Johnson
In 1934, after a two-year crime spree that painted the star-crossed bandits as revolutionary heroes in a depressed America, Bonnie and Clyde are violently gunned down in their "death car." That's the legend; but that's not Bonnie & Clyde, the new musical from Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics), and Ivan Menchell (book). Sure, their deaths, in a flash of strobe lights, are a part of the show, but they're up at the front, pushed out of the way in favor for a poetic look at the Americana behind the myth. It's a little funny that the first number, "Picture Show," set in 1920, is all about Bonnie's desire to be like Clara Bow and Clyde's affection for Billy the Kid, given that the musical is far from the glamour both of films of that era, and of the 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde, and yet it's not surprising: born into lean times, with absent or hardscrabble parents, is it any wonder that escapism was on their mind? (Act II's opening will suggest the same, with the folk-like "Made In America.")

The musical is full of winning contrasts, particularly in the musical's tendency for unlikely duets that are sung by rivals, often across great distances, and yet about similar themes. Outlaw Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) and heroic cop Ted (Louis Hobson) both pine for Bonnie (Laura Osnes), and so they sing "You Can Do Better Than Him." Blanche (a terrifically wry and religious Melissa Van Der Schyff), is set up to be Bonnie's opposite -- in an early comic number, "You're Goin' Back to Jail," she convinces her husband (and Clyde's brother) Buck (Claybourne Elder) to turn himself in, whereas Bonnie ends up breaking Clyde out -- and yet both she and Bonnie sing from the heart that "You Love Who You Love." There's no shortage of tortuous solos, either, with Clyde, sexually abused in prison and abandoned by the carefree guards, turning to murder in the wailing song "Raise A Little Hell": if that's his only option ("I sure won't get to heaven"), and it sure seems to be, then why not? ("Freedom's something I gotta steal" is his mantra.)

These contrasts are further enhanced by Jeff Calhoun's wonderful direction, which handles some rather graphic and gritty violence -- these were murderers, after all, whether they intended to be or not -- in imaginative ways. At the moment of greatest chaos, a bloody shoot-out, the action literally freezes, with Clyde turning to his younger self (Talon Ackerman) to warn him about the way things'll be, before brutally jumping back into the fray as he murders a sheriff. Watch, too, the echoes in the reprisals: "God's Arms Are Always Open" plays with a baptism the first time around, and with a burial the second, both staged in similar ways; although "Picture Show" is still sung by the young versions of our "heroes" when it repeats, it manages to carry the weight of their grown-up reality; and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is a killer number both times -- at first, it's just Osnos singing through tears, but then she's joined by Jordan as the two ride off to their final destination, a sweet moment between lovers who can at least know that they've had some good time together.

Now, the play does have some flaws: the writing is all-around a little too literal for Calhoun's visual flair, Bonnie's prided poetry, and Clyde's basic skills with the guitar. The music is so heavy on up-beat pop/country that it sometimes doesn't match the mood, as in "Too Late To Turn Back Now." And some of the work just feels slight: "How 'Bout a Dance" is flirty and nothing more, and "When I Drive" is an unnecessary reminder of how boyish the Barrow brothers are. I sometimes wished the musical were a little more wild -- that the slap Bonnie and Clyde give one another didn't seem so staged, that the live projections on the wall weren't so on-the-nose about the "accuracy" of the musical. At the same time, however, I found myself wanting their ride to continue, hoping that they'd find some way to pull through: perhaps Bonnie & Clyde, in these days of the 99%, will.

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