This is how the show ends? Not with a bang, but with a whimper? There is, quite literally, no end to the ingenuity displayed by Michael Aman and Oscar E. Moore, the lyricists and librettists for The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, which ends its New York Musical Theatre Festival run today.
After over two hours of singin', dancin', and shootin', it's all over, faster than you can say "anticlimax," with not so much as a bullet fired onstage during the final fight. Yes, if you want to know exactly what fate befalls those two notorious bank robbers and renegades, you'd better search out another telling of the story - I hear there are a few out there. Sadly, the excision of the ending is about as original as this version of the Bonnie and Clyde story gets when it comes to interpreting the story.
Presentation is another matter: Aman, Moore, composer Dana P. Rowe, choreographer Randy Skinner, and director Michael Bush envision Bonnie and Clyde as American folk heroes, or rather American folk anti-heroes, who achieved through their nefarious crimes (which included multiple murders) during the early 1930s, a status as revered as their actions are reviled. Like them or hate them, they offer plenty to sing about.
And sing people do in the show's setting, The American Café, where musicians act roles in the story and actors play instruments in the band. (Perhaps this production was conceived to mentally prepare us for the upcoming Sweeney Todd revival?) Yet there's something strangely right about the concept and its execution that immediately transports you to the Texas tavern where Clyde Barrow (Deven May) and Bonnie Parker (Sherrie Austin) live out their infamous ambitions through song and dance.
As long as the songs are central, the show manages to stay moving. They all have a juicy, homespun twang, and evoke everything from "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to Southern gospel in their construction, sound, and feel. Not every number hits a bull's-eye, but most are on target: Bonnie's "Ain't Goin' Back" and "Roads I Ain't Yet Seen" get to the root of her yearning for adventure, and Clyde's "Wanted" knowingly compares running from the law with feeling at home with other people. "It Ain't Over Yet," which highlights the popular-historical importance of the duo's saga as it's unfolding, is a terrific theme number for the show.
The book, though, doesn't have the same edge: There are no new ideas to be found and very few clever lines; most of the dialogue sounds like something ripped from a handbook of Western film clichés. As such, it's difficult to care much about the characters, particularly the members of Barrow gang, who are nothing more than familiar types: Raymond Hamilton (Fred Berman) is an unhinged, violent madman; Deacon Jones (Brian Charles Rooney) is a hopelessly naïve and overly trusting kid; Clyde's brother Buck (Erich Bergen) and his wife Blanche (Heidi Blickenstaff) are a stereotypical bickering couple.
Though all the actors work overtime to bring flavor to their roles, only May truly stands out: Looking like he just stepped from a period black-and-white photograph, he's got suavity and sex appeal to spare, making his Clyde seem like the gang's ideal, charismatic leader. (This is occasionally at odds with the book's characterization of him, but never mind; I'm inclined to trust May on this one.) Austin attacks her songs with gusto, but can't match May in terms of sheer energy or theatrical creativity.
Then there's Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who spends the show chasing down Bonnie and Clyde. He's played by Marcus Neville with a smooth, underhanded assurance, and just the right creepy overtones. His twist, though, is that he wields his electric guitar as some men in his position might a gun, and whether narrating the action or participating in it, helps build a connection between the mythos of Bonnie and Clyde and the reality of their cold-blooded actions.
But without experiencing the full breadth of their deeds, from opening scene to final curtain, this too feels like a con job. The authors might well be attempting to demonstrate how legendary people and events exist and even thrive when not all the facts are known. But in doing so, given their willingness to show us everything else - however dully - it feels instead that they are themselves committing a crime of a theatrical nature. Audiences don't like being robbed of their denouement.
New York Musical Theatre Festival