review: Bonnie & Clyde

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Bonnie & Clyde

Book by Ivan Menchell
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun
Featuring Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, Melissa Van Der Schyff, Claybourn Elder
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street
December 1, 2011 — ongoing
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 6, 2011

(L-R) Melissa Van Der Schyff, Claybourne Elder, Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes. Photo by Nathan Johnson.

I find myself musing quite a bit about a 1950s gang outlaw musical during this 1930s lone outlaw musical. Yes, West Side Story. The themes that cohere for the one are challenged in the other, and may inform differences in the effects of the two works.  The elements that do resonate in Bonnie & Clyde are enchanting: design elements, stunning performances, and a few stellar numbers that genuinely move the heart, delight the ear, earn their place in cabaret performance repertoires for years to come.  What the adventure cannot escape is the fact that it is a two act dramatization of several characters coming of age in Depression-era Texas in dire poverty, with dreams of fame, who possess some physical beauty and charm (we are reminded of their famous images in beautiful projection designs and costuming that draws from those images), who conclude that “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” (as Bonnie sings deep in the second act), when you go out flaming.  And somehow that sentiment animating Bonnie and her Clyde (and their small band in the context of Depression America) is not enough to raise this lovely piece of ensemble performance to cheers of our own.

Bonnie comes from modest means in Texas — we meet her first as a young girl (Kelsey Fowler) with big Hollywood dreams — going to church, growing up to work in a diner, loving her mother, waiting for her life to begin.  Clyde as a child (Talon Ackerman) grow up shooting guns, living in a tent city for a time, engaging in petty thievery.  Their young adult selves, Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan (who earn their entrance applause), meet on the roads outside their town (he has just escaped from jail, her car has broken down), and their adventure begins.  Chance and youthful beauty and the context of a country in economic crisis, conveyed by a gorgeous set design by Tobin Ost. Spare barn wood slats and raked ramps give us a world askew that becomes other rooms and environments with projections of Dust Bowl portraits by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and exquisite spare illuminations of stars and passing searchlights.  Add to this constellation of characters Clyde’s earnest and loyal married brother Buck (Claybourne Elder) and his acerbic, religious, and loving wife Blanche (Melissa Van Der Schyff) and the core members of the Barrow Gang are assembled to debate, hide out from the law, and finally disband through arrest or death.

There are hold-ups and jail time (and escapes) and love songs and shoot outs and blood packets aplenty.  This production begins with the image of adult Bonnie and Clyde dead in their shot-up car after a law enforcement stakeout, so the build-up to that known final resolution is not our journey.  We want to know about these characters — why they make their choices. I find that my heart is engaged with the females in this production — Kelsey Fowler as young Bonnie expressing searing and infectious ambition in “This World Will Remember Me” and Laura Osnes as adult Bonnie showing her cabaret style singing to Clyde late one night under the stars in “How ‘Bout a Dance” and Osnes and Melissa Van Der Schyff as Blanche singing of their men and their sorrows with them in “You Love Who You Love.”  This last tune created in my mind a counterpoint with “I Have A Love” between Anita and Maria in West Side Story — they bond through their differences due to their love of their men.

And while the rest of the show provides some beautiful scenery and some magnificent singing  (and even some religious revival meeting adventures led by Michael Lanning, whose “God’s Arms Are Always Open” is reminiscent of “Choose To Be Happy” in Grey Gardens), the story itself wanders.  The emotional core doesn’t keep us.  These pieces are precious — and I hope for a long long life for tunes such as “You Love Who You Love.”  The whole is not as great as some of these parts.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 8, 2011)

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