Tuesday, December 6, 2011

REVIEW: Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde.  Review of the Saturday, December 3 evening performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.  2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.  Starring Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, Melissa Van Der Schyf, Claybourne Elder, Louis Hobson, Daniel Cooney, Joe Hart, Kelsey Fowler and Talon Ackerman.  Book by Ivan Menchel.  Music by Frank Wildhorn.  Lyrics by Don Black. Orchestrations and Musical Direction by John McDaniel.  Direction and Choreography by Jeff Calhoun.  Graphic violence, bloodshed, loud gun fire.

Grade: A

Not since Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett has Broadway asked its audiences to love as gruesome a duo as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.  Both couples will chill and thrill you, but there is one huge difference: while both are legendary, only the latter pair were actual people.  And because these two were the real thing, the writers of the new musical Bonnie and Clyde are asking us to connect with true life murderous monsters.  That they really existed takes us to places we may not want to go.

The show couldn't be more timely, really.  We Americans are living in a time not unlike that of Bonnie and Clyde: the "haves" have more, the "have-nots" have less; the banks have no money to lend; no one can afford to buy.  We are a celebrity obsessed nation, where the seedy side of every day heroes enthrall us more than that which made them heroes in the first place.  And more and more and more of us seem willing to do anything for a quick buck and our fifteen minutes of fame.  Going down in a blaze of glory is the perfect way to make history.

To its credit, the entire show lets us decide for ourselves if robbing the rich and the poor is forgivable.  It wears the duplicity of this couple on its blood spattered sleeves.  The couple was madly, passionately in love; they were also violently abusive and dangerously co-dependent.  They robbed banks in the name of justice for the poor; they robbed grocery stores for the thrill, practice and ease of it.  They shot, at first anyway, only when shot at.  The public adored them for sticking up for the little people; they adored being adored - she made no secret of wanting to be a star; he modeled his life after Billy the Kid.  But then we are also asked to consider that these star struck/star crossed lovers had reason to turn out the way they did.

"Dyin' Ain't So Bad"

Again to its credit the show lets us decide for ourselves.  Is it no wonder that Clyde and his brother Buck lived a life of crime given that they were more often than not falsely accused of crimes as children?  Why not do the crime?  They'll do the time whether or not they deserved it.  Is it no wonder that Clyde's truly murderous side came out after a series of prison sanctioned rapes and beatings?  And what about Bonnie?  A woman clearly ahead of her time wanted it all - stardom on the big screen, to become a published poet, to be loved unconditionally by the public.  She hardly led the charmed life with her father dead when she was a child, an unhappy marriage with a long gone husband, and a nowhere career waiting tables in a nowhere Texas town. In an era when people saved money just to buy groceries, Bonnie Parker spent her savings on a glamour photograph.  And how much more "American Dream" can you get than running away with your true love with promises of prosperity and fame, all on the open road in that most American of objects: a car.  Boys and their cars and guns.  Girls with their poetry dreams and Hollywood magazines.  And the irony of all ironies is what brought them down.  Perhaps the most virtuous thing they shared was a true and complete devotion to their families.  It was that devotion that led to their deaths in a hailstorm of bullets as they sped unwittingly into a police ambush on the way to see Bonnie's mother.

And so Bonnie and Clyde asks us some really tough questions:   Can we still trust in God when it seems that he has forgotten us?  Is there salvation in forgiveness?  Can we love admire the sinner and still hate the sin?  Now that we know why they did it and how their lives pointed them in this evil direction, can we really understand these heroic villains?  How many Americans are just a few food stamps away from doing the exact same thing today?

Like I said, the creative team asks us to ponder these things and to arrive at our own conclusions.  And they have certainly given us a lot to mull over and chew upon.  Tobin Ost's monolithic set, with its towering columns of worn and weathered wood and uneven and sharply off balance platforms immediately thrust us into an overwhelming place of destitution and despair; a place where every way you turn is literally an uphill climb, and where society - your fellow Americans - are never firmly afoot, but rather always on the verge of falling over the edge of whatever brink they currently face.  Aside from a few set pieces and the symbolic use of a Model T, only Michael Gilliam's moody, evocative lighting and Aaron Rhyne's breathtaking and eerie projections give us any concrete information about where and when we are in the story.  Together with director Jeff Calhoun, these designers have created a world both as real as our own and as hauntingly theatrical as you are likely to see in this so far uneven season of musicals.

"When I Drive"


And the team of writers who have brought this cautionary tale to the stage have done so in terrific package of swift moving scenes, interesting character arcs and period tunes that drift in and out of your memory days later, like snatches of honky-tonk piano, country riffs and soulful Gospel tunes on the passing breeze.  Attached to each may be some very specific images and scenes, courtesy of director Calhoun, book writer Ivan Menchel, lyricist Don Black and composer Frank Wildhorn.  You may remember a sultry Bonnie Parker when you hear the bluesy piano line from the sure hit of the score, "How 'Bout a Dance?"; you may think of the intimate quiet moments when you hear the ukulele strumming of a bathing Clyde serenading his "Bonnie."  Or maybe a speeding car will remind you of the rousing "The World Will Remember Us" or a glimpse of a euphoric kid behind the wheel smiling carefree will take you back to "When I Drive" or "Raise a Little Hell."  Yes, the score is that evocative.  And so are the performances.

The ensemble does some terrific work, managing to bring us a cavalcade of poor Americans in several scenes, but you never once feel like you are seeing the same people recycled.  They really get to shine during a grocery store hold up and one of two big church scenes.  Those, scenes, led by a very capable Daniel Cooney (understudy for Michael Lanning) also offer some biting commentary on the place of religion in desperate times, what with prayers unanswered and a government even more unresponsive (Act One's "God's Arms Are Always Open" and the scathing anti-government undertones in Act Two's "Made in America).  Also of note in the ensemble is the dry weariness and welcome comedy of the "salon ladies" Alison Cimmet, Garrett Long and Marissa McGowan.

3 to 1: Ted Hinton, the Sheriff and a Deputy
vs. Clyde Barrow

As the family of Bonnie and Clyde, Mimi Bessette is worry personified as Bonnie's mother, while Victor Hernandez and Leslie Becker offer mostly silent towers of strength, compromise and eventually, defeat.  Ms. Becker offers a completely opposite character as the ballsy loudmouth Governor of Texas.  The best surprise for me of the supporting cast is the bombastic performance of Louis Hobson, who, as Ted Hinton, shows off a mighty belt of a singing voice and an excellent range of emotion  from heartbreak to murderous rage to a shocking voice of reason.  Having seen him now in three different shows, it is really a kick to see him have a little more backbone!  It is Hobson's character that in the midst of the chaos of emotion and fear, has the guts to question whether or not the ambush they are preparing is in fact as much murder as any of those committed by the people they are trying to capture?  The wrinkle in that argument though comes in the form of his undying love for one Bonnie Parker.  One can only imagine the conflict the real Hinton must have felt as he shot at the car.

The performances by the two kids in the cast, Kelsey Fowler and Talon Ackerman, as the young versions of the title characters, serve their purpose well, without being too cloying.  It is only later, when they face their adult selves that you feel a bit of forced theatricality after everything else comes off so much more naturally.  Perhaps it would have worked better had we seen them again at different stages of the adult Bonnie and Clyde's journey.  Or maybe it would have been more interesting had they (well, other adult actors, anyway) been portraying Clara Bow and Billy the Kid, mentors both.

Buck and Blanche Barrow

The Barrow Gang - Blanche, Buck, Clyde and Bonnie

Which brings us to the four central characters - the Barrow Gang.  You can just hear them announce her name as a Tony nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Musical from the minute Melissa Van Der Schyf opens her mouth.  A cross between the Coal Miner's Daughter and a young Dolly Parton, she commands the stage in every scene she's in, whether she is comic relief, desperate housewife, devout Christian or gun moll on the run.  To see her is to see a new Broadway star born, and when she sings "You Love Who You Love" and achingly honest duet, you pray that the show lives long enough that Reba and Dolly will hear it and record it. But it is a very loud moment of grief as she cradles her dying husband in her arms, juxtaposed with a completely silent monent immediately after as she, drenched in blood, stands for her mug shot, eyes empty and no longer searching for a God that never comes to her, that you see the real power in an elegant performance.  With much less to work with, but making a terrific impression as foil to both his wife and his brother, Claybourne Elder makes Buck the somewhat dimmer version of Clyde, while his boundless hero worship of Clyde makes him easily the most sympathetic character on the stage.  While it is necessary to the story that he has that much less to do, one still wishes there was a little more for Mr. Elder to do.

Laura Osnes as Bonnie Parker

Jeremy Jordan as Clyde Barrow

Bonnie and Clyde together

Just like Romeo and Juliet or the aforementioned Sweeney Todd, the casting of the title roles is essential to the success of this piece, and boy did they hit the jackpot with Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan as Bonnie and Clyde.  Separately, they are astonishing.  She is sultry innocence and sweet cunning evil all at once.  As her signature song tells you, one dance with her will make you lose your blues, but it will also break your heart.  And what a belt!  Just listen as "Dyin'Ain't So Bad" becomes the next Broadway audition staple, as hundreds of Bonnie wannabes try out for show after show with it.  And let's not forget the icy shiver one gets in the theatre as you realize she's either singing her suicide note or dictating her epitaph.  With this show, Osnes proves she can carry a vehicle and she doesn't have to be the pretty ingenue to do it.  Welcome to the really big leagues, Laura!  Meanwhile, on his own, the performance of Mr. Jordan proves he is a real Broadway star: he oozes charisma, has amazing sexuality and masculinity, and still has an approachable everyman vulnerability.  A heartthrob, a matinee idol and a truly gifted actor-singer, he is "triple threat" personified.  I sat less than 5 feet from him during a pivotal prison scene and watching him work through physical pain, fear, shame and rage was a mesmerizing thrill.  Like I said, separately, they are wonderful.  Together, they are old-school Broadway in the very best sense.  Watching them together - where a fleeting glance is as powerful  as a passionate embrace - one imagines what it must have felt like when watching Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne at the beginning of their storied career.  Osnes and Jordan are making Broadway magic, and, I hope, Broadway history on the Schoenfeld Theatre stage nightly.  Their smoking hot chemistry and honest, gutsy performances get you real close to being on the side of Bonnie and Clyde.  The final image of them arm in arm driving off to see their parents and into a hellish ambush makes you feel just a twinge of sorrow for their characters, and heaping amounts of theatrical happiness that you are watching the final tableau as two careers take off.  Bravo to them both.

"The World Will Remember Us"

Often, the creators remind us that this isn't just a rootin' tootin' shooting gallery of mischief.  No, as the body count rises, we see the actual photos of the victims.  They were all real people.  But perhaps most gripping (and downright creepy) is the frequent recreation of actual photos of Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang.  As stunning and sexy as the logo photo is, I will never be able to look at it again without remembering that on the stars of the show they are costumes.  On the real Bonnie and Clyde, they are what they were killed and buried in.  Perhaps the cruelest image of all is the series of short films that show the pair in their car covered in blood, tangled together in one last embrace, pulled out, and taken away while hundreds watched like fans at a ball game.  Was it cruel when these people were cold-blooded killers?  No. Those images are cruel because that was 1934, and in 2011 we haven't changed a hell of a lot.

For more information go to http://bonnieandclydebroadway.com.

Production photos by Nathan Johnson.



  1. Wonderful review, Jeff. I wasn't going to see this one, but I think I'm gonna play hooky from work this week and catch a matinee. Thanks for your thoughts about it. Chuck

  2. Thanks, Chuck! If you do go, I'm sure you'll enjoy it - their chemistry alone makes it worth it. I don't think you'll be sorry!



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