Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 1, 2011
Bonnie & Clyde Book by Ivan Menchell. Lyrics by Don Black. Music by Frank Wildhorn. Direction and choreography by Jeff Calhoun. Music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by John McDaniel. Scenic & costume design by Tobin Ost. Lighting design by Michael Gilliam. Sound design by John Shivers. Projection design by Aaron Rhyne. Hair & wig design by Charles Lapointe. Makeup design by Ashley Ryan. Fight direction by Steve Rankin. Cast: Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, Melissa van der Schyff, Claybourne Elder, Joe Hart, Louis Hobson, with Talon Ackerman, Rozi Baker, Leslie Becker, Mimi Bessette, Alison Cimmet, Daniel Cooney, Jon Fletcher, Kelsey Fowler, Victor Hernandez, Sean Jenness, Katie Klaus, Michael Lanning, Garrett Long, Matt Lutz, Marissa McGowan, Cassie Okenka, Justin Matthew Sargent, Jack Tartaglia, Tad Wilson.
This is no small feat for a story that is packed from start to finish with law-breaking, shooting, and sex. Though this tale about two bank-robbing young adults in the Midwest in the 1930s is perhaps best known for the 1967 film about it starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, respectively playing Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, it was a part of the American mythos long before that: crime as the ultimate in show-biz accomplishments, documented by a media more concerned with the torrid story than the terrifying truth. Yet for all this neither Wildhorn nor his librettist (Ivan Menchell), lyricist (Don Black), or director-choreographer (Jeff Calhoun) can make this story seem essential, or even interesting.
The closest we get is with the simmering appeal of its leads, Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan. Both young, sinewy, and packing rocket-fueled smolder that carries just as far as their firmly trained singing voices, they capture in the way they look and sound the necessary sense of possibility mined from life on the edge. There's a shred of optimism buried just below their hardened exteriors, and when it shows itself (as it does fairly often), you believe that they believe that all the stealing, killing, lying, and jail-breaking they're doing actually is somehow for the best. The rest of the time, their chemistry together is sufficiently strong to encourage you to overlook (if not forget) the lack of emotional or characterological nuance in anything either of them says or sings. The notion you get of their ramshackle union is not nothing.
It is not, however, very much, and it's far from enough to carry a full evening. For that, you really do need good writing, which Bonnie & Clyde is bereft of.
Though Wildhorn's tunes bear the dusty, bluesy riffs of period country and jazz that fit the show's setting, the melodies are repetitive, forgettable, and, as with so much of Wildhorn's music, not theatrical. If you're longing for scope, size, or a painter's array of colors, you won't discover them here. Each song finds a hook (movie-house jaunt, eat-my-dust anger, jukebox comedy, generic gospel, and so on) and sticks with it until the chalky end, never blooming into something that requires the space, air, or energy that captivating theatre music does. The songs don't technically all sound the same, but they all feel the same: as flat as the prairies on which so much of the action unfolds.
Black's lyrics operate on much the same principle, flouting simple and usually simplistic ideas as if they're Sondheim- or Hammerstein-level insight. ("I can't take no more of this / This nightmare has to end / In this God-forsaken Place / Death would be a welcome friend," wails Clyde in one of his many imprisoned moments.) Menchell's book strives to tie Bonnie's and Clyde's fortunes — and, for that matter, their existences — to the era's economic troubles, in what one suspects is a grasp for relevancy in our own depressed year. But with neither the lead characters, nor those of the other two members of the Barrow Gang, Clyde's brother Buck (Claybourne Elder) or his wife Blanche (Melissa van der Schyff), does he do so in more than a generalized way. These could be any discontented poor Texans driven to lives as outlaws, but the qualities that make them special or worthy of our notice are nowhere to be found.
Therein lies Bonnie & Clyde's elemental and crippling flaw: Barrow and Parker were nasty people, and those are the toughest to successfully musicalize. They do sometimes show up at the centers of musicals if there's something redeeming about them (Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Harold Hill in The Music Man) or as the fulcra for bitter satire (Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago, for example). Bonnie and Clyde are neither: In the opening number, titled "Picture Show," a young Clyde (Talon Ackerman) croons of his desire to be like Billy the Kid and Al Capone. When he chases that dream, or when Bonnie shoves aside the well-meaning but milquetoast deputy Ted (Louis Hobson) in favor of the known unsavory Barrow, yet neither is in pursuit of something higher or more admirable, how can we like them? And why should we?
We can't. And we shouldn't. As a result, the musical becomes one unconvincing, uninvolving scene after another, lurching about as it tries to elicit admiration, pity, and even erotic allure from the duo's increasingly ghastly acts, without earning anything more than our revulsion. We identify only with Ted, in fact; Hobson's incredibly gentle and sensitive portrayal helps, but it's as much because Ted is forced to watch helplessly as Bonnie trashes her life against his protestations and attempts to help. Yet he's destined to fail because he commits the greatest of all crimes: He's just not that exciting.
Ted we can forgive (we've all been there, haven't we?), but Bonnie & Clyde itself is much more difficult. It may not be a bad show — though Calhoun's direction and few dances are lifeless, and the work from designers Tobin Ost (sets and costumes) and Michael Gilliam (lights) looks like a second-rate summer stock company stranded in a literal barn — but it's at best a mediocre one. Perhaps that's a step up for Wildhorn, but it's nothing to celebrate. When the titular lovers sing a song called "This World Will Remember Us," you'll be doubting it strongly — and struggling to stay awake long enough to see if the writers give you a reason to care.