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Regional Reviews: San Diego

Bonnie & Clyde

Laura Osnes and Stark Sands
Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde was a perfect match for the zeitgeist of the 1960s. The film's tag line said it all: "The strangest damned gang you ever heard of. They're young. They're in love. They rob banks." Many identified with the title characters, who lived outlaw lives, challenged the system and died young.

Times have changed, and what fascinated in the 1960s no longer fascinates to the same degree or in the same ways. So, any attempt to resurrect the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow needs to consider how to present it to 21st century audiences.

Jeff Calhoun's production of Ivan Menchell, Frank Wildhorn, and Don Black's musical version Bonnie & Clyde makes a good try of it. Unfortunately, weaknesses in the book, lyrics and score, as well as a key casting problem, hold back its success.

To Mr. Menchell's book first: it emphasizes Depression-era desperation, but it's focused more on telling the details of the story than it is on creating dimensional characters. Bonnie (Laura Osnes) and Clyde (Stark Sands) meet when he attempts to steal her mother's car after breaking out of prison with his brother, Buck (Claybourne Elder). The two have come to town to meet up with Buck's wife Blanche (Melissa van der Schyff), but Blanche, a preacher's daughter, persuades Buck to come to church, be baptized, and then turn himself in to finish his jail time. Clyde does not turn himself in but is captured by the town sheriff (Wayne Duvall). One of the sheriff's deputies, Ted (Chris Peluso), is surprised to see that Bonnie is infatuated with Clyde, as he has been trying to get her attention through daily trips to the diner where she works.

Buck and Clyde come up for a parole hearing at the same time. Buck is set free for his good behavior, but Clyde is given a sixteen-year sentence. Bonnie smuggles Clyde a gun, and he breaks out of prison once again. But, while robbing a local store for a little start-up money, Clyde shoots and kills a deputy (Michael Mulligan) who arrives on the scene.

Now wanted for murder, there is no turning back. Bonnie and Clyde travel from state to state, robbing banks and staying one step ahead of local authorities. Buck, who hasn't been able to find a job, eventually seeks them out, with Blanche objecting but following him all the same. Things escalate from there: there are more murders, Buck is killed, and the gang becomes the object of intense press fascination, down to publishing the poems that Bonnie writes about their adventures. Pressure to capture the gang increases, and Ted realizes that they periodically make trips to see family, particularly Bonnie mother, Emma (Mare Winningham). Following their movements eventually leads the police to a shoot out with Bonnie and Clyde, where the couple are killed in a hail of bullets.

If anything, the joy of the story is in the quirks of the people who populate it, as was amply demonstrated by the stellar film cast that included Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard, all of whom were nominated for Academy Awards (Ms. Parsons won). Mr. Menchell's characters are more bland than quirky, and that's a problem. And, though the book concentrates on the story, elements of the plotting are still weak.

For example, the audience is left to figure out what attracted Bonnie to Clyde in the first place and why Bonnie would leave her steady job as a waitress (a tough thing to come by), a shy though attractive admirer who also had a steady job, and a home with a loving mother to chase after an escaped convict. We end up assuming that it's sexual attraction, but Clyde is unable to have sex in one scene (though, in a later one he brags of their sexual relationship). Because we don't know Bonnie's motives, her sudden obsession with Clyde puzzles the audience as much as it does her mother.

The music and lyrics began life as a song cycle, and I wonder if they might not have been better served in that form than as songs that need to fit within the context of a book. Some of the songs are beautiful and, interestingly, the best ones were written for the women characters ("You Love Who You Love" is sung by Bonnie and Blanche, "The Devil" is sung by Emma). Mr. Wildhorn tries out different musical styles in Bonnie & Clyde and he is less bombastic than in previous outings. Still, he manages to wring maximum pathos out of every song, which only serves to wear on audience ears.

Mr. Calhoun has assembled a cast that sings exceedingly well. But he is saddled with a Bonnie and a Clyde who exhibit next to no chemistry, a problem I lay at the feet of Mr. Sands. If Bonnie's attraction to Clyde is, indeed, sexual (and the book provides no other real reason for her obsession), then there has to be a basis for it. Mr. Sands provides no such basis; while he is good looking, his every move denies sexuality. By contrast, Mr. Elder is much sexier (and at least as good looking) as Buck. Were Clyde's songs in the baritone range, Mr. Elder could have easily taken over the role of Clyde and made it work. Mr. Calhoun has tried to juice things up by having Mr. Sands play two brief nude scenes, but to no avail. They came off as gratuitous.

Ms. Osnes is a very appealing performer, and I loved her as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific when I saw that show in New York. Her Bonnie is also a dreamer, though not nearly as bright, and Ms. Osnes has chosen to play the contradictions in the book, which makes her performance a little confusing. Still, she works to generate as much sexual chemistry as she can with Mr. Sands, though it doesn't help that she looks substantially older than he.

The supporting players sing well (kudos especially to Michael Lanning for his surprisingly fresh performance of the preacher's song) and give solid characterizations with what little the book provides them (credit Mr. Calhoun for helping in this regard). The standout here is Ms. Winningham, who manages to imbue Bonnie's mother with wisdom and depth in her brief appearances.

There is promise in Bonnie & Clyde, but, despite some fine performances, not enough of that promise is being shown in this production.

Bonnie & Clyde continues through December 20 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre. Tickets ($43-$100) available by calling (858) 550-1010, or by visiting The La Jolla Playhouse website.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Bonnie & Clyde. Book by Ivan Menchell, music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black, music supervision and direction by John McDaniel, direction and musical staging by Jeff Calhoun.

Scenic and costume design by Tobin Ost, lighting design by Michael Gilliam, sound design by Brian Ronan, projection design by Aaron Rhyne, wig and hair design by Carol Doran, orchestrations, incidental music and vocal arrangements by John McDaniel, associate director Coy Middlebrook, vocal/dialect coach, Robert Barry Fleming, fight director Steve Rankin, stage manager, Paul J. Smith, assistant stage manager Sarah Marshall, dramaturg Shirley Fishman, casting Telsey + Company, local casting Marike Fitzgerald, associate producer Dana I. Harrel, production manager Peter J. Davis.

With Leslie Becker, Courtney Corey, Daniel Cooney, Michael Covert, Wayne Duvall, Claybourne Elder, Victor Hernandez, Michael Lanning, Michael Mulligan, Carly Nykanen, Laura Osnes, Chris Peluso, Stark Sands, Mike Sears, Melissa van der Schyff, Jessica Watkins, and Mare Winningham.

Contains adult situations and content, violence, cigar smoke, herbal cigarettes, gunshots and strobe effects.

Photo: Craig Schwartz

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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