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A CurtainUp Review
Bonnie & Clyde
True, the fantasizing Bonnie and the fanatic Clyde weren’t just your nice neighborhood kids gone astray, but rather committed-to-each-other sociopaths, linked more by an inexplicable chemistry than by their inveterate desire to rise above the economic depravation in which they were raised and consigned. It is also true that these ill-fated lovers who chose to live a life as reckless robbers are more aligned in spirit to the desperate and hapless victims of the great Depression than we care to admit. And they may just as easily be seen today as the kind of rebels who are willing to take a last ditch stand against an unbalanced socio-political system that is incontestably stacked against them. But what does that have to do with the ability of Bonnie and Clyde to beguile us as either perverse historical celebrities or as patently heinous villains?
It takes a gutsy, almost giddily motivated musical such as this one to suggest that we need be neither defenders nor deplorers of their actions, but simply rather impassioned observers willing to “give it up” for the sake of a bloody good time. It isn’t every musical that opens with the hero and heroine speeding along in their getaway car only to be ambushed by the law with a hail of bullets that leave them lifeless in each others blood-soaked arms. But this audacious musical that takes us for a wild and sometimes wacky musical spin as it traces over the lives of a pretty, but discontent young woman who wanted to be a movie star like idol Clara Bow and a charming but angry young man who identified with Billy the Kid.
It is love and lust at first sight for the rapacious Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) and the by-glamour-intoxicated Bonnie (Laura Osnes) as she gives him a lift and he gives her something akin to a lift. Clyde is played with a charm that is fueled by empowering rage whose acts of violence and love-making may not earn our admiration, but certainly hold our rapt attention. Bonnie is more poignantly defined as Clyde’s partner-in-crime and played with a lovely touch of melancholy by Osnes who originated the role when the musical premiered at the Asola Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse in 2009(<a href="bonnieandclydela.html">Curtainup review)
Osnes and Jordan are both excellent singers and their beautifully entwined voices are the key to our involvement in such emotionally charged, gorgeously melodic ballads as “This World Will Remember Me,” “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” “What Was Good Enough For You,” and their climactic heart-breaker “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” The musical’s most amusingly tender scene finds Clyde serenading Bonnie (“Bonnie”) on a uke while taking a bath. If there is a potential hit hidden in the score it’s the seductively bluesy “How ‘Bout a Dance,” as sung by Osnes.
If I have to fault any aspect of the production that Jeff Calhoun is credited with both direction and choreography is that there is very little opportunity for surprise. One can assume that building up any tension, despite the gunplay, the spilling of blood is more the problem of the plot and the slick way it is addressed and progresses. But that is a minor complaint considering the generally high level of testosterone that prevails and the unleashing of tempers that flair with regularity.
Few punches are pulled as scene by scene we see how Clyde’s minor clashes with the law, the punishments while in prison, including brutal rapes and sadistic beatings, feed his determination to get away at any cost and if necessary get away with murder. At first, violence appears to be antithetical to Bonnie, the small Texas town waitress who had a husband (sort of), one more inclined to write poems, dream about Hollywood stardom and of being swept away by a man, even as dangerous and unpredictable a one as Clyde, who can help her fulfill her dreams. Early scenes include Kelsey Fowler, as young Bonnie and Talon Ackerman, as the already gun-totin’ young Clyde, both excellent performers.
The plot places a good deal of emphasis on the couple's devotion to both of their parents, which leads to their demise. In this regard, Bonnie’s disapproving mother Emma (Mimi Bessette), Clyde’s hard-scrabble mother (Leslie Becker) and father (Victor Hernandez) are vividly and memorably compressed characters. Clyde’s loyal and abetting brother Buck (splendidly played by Claybourne Elder) and his religion-intoxicated wife Blanche (Melissa Van Der Schyff) deliver some key dramatic as well as comedic strokes. Van Der Schyff is particularly outstanding as the conflicted Blanche who stands by her man and stands by ready to dominate any scene she is in, particularly when she delivers her affecting signature aria “That’s What You Call a Dream.”
Bonnie & Clyde makes a case for why and how people fall back on religion and guns in a time of deprivation and loss of personal dignity. Wildhorn’s eclectic score rides adventurously over America’s vast musical terrain, including bits of hillbilly, honky-tonk, folk, ragtime, jazz, and hints of you-name-it pop. He also gives the gospel genre its obligatory due with a rousing “God’s Arms Are Always Open,” and the preacher (sturdy performance by Michael Lanning) giving a provocative response to an unresponsive American, “Made in America.”
Set designer Tobin Ost evokes the grim look of Depression Era America with a unit multi level set of grey slats that lends itself to instant shifts in location. Ost also designed the costumes that thankfully make no concessions to being either depressing or grim, especially those coquettishly worn by the svelte Ms. Osnes. An old Model T on the virtual move is the most spectacular single effect while projections by Aaron Rhyne help to define locations, all under the expert lighting of Michael Gilliam.
Small roles are also well written and portrayed, as with the comedic three ladies (Garrett Long, Marissa McGowan, and Alison Cimmet) who don’t mince words under hairdryers, and Ted (Louis Hobson,) a policeman whose long-standing love for Bonnie is reflected in his futile attempt to stop the fatal ambush. The final tableau which replicates the opening scene but before the blood-bath, is as tender, moving and tragically romantic as anything you are likely to see on the stage this season.
The real fatality would be if this entertaining, message-driven, melody-enriched, original musical is not able to withstand the cruelly condescending remarks by some critics who somehow feel it is their personal mission to contentiously and consistently put down the work of a very fine composer.
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