Hang on to your lids, kids. I actually liked the new Broadway musical version of Bonnie and Clyde. Didn’t love it, mind you. But the show, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is polished, touching and tuneful, a worthy showcase for a few professional performers in leading roles who are vastly entertaining and amount to nothing short of major discoveries. In a dreary Broadway season of nothing but deadly letdowns, including an unspeakable sonic blast from the pitch-impaired and tonally challenged Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin as well as the dreariest second-rate production of Follies in 40 years, at least there’s something to enjoy in addition to Hugh Jackman.
The two most beloved machine-gun toting gangsters in American history have been brought to life with warm, sexy precision by the glorious singing voices of Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan. They can act, too. Forget the mixed reviews comparing them unfavorably with the stars of the 1967 Arthur Penn film. I mean, nobody looks like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. But could they carry a tune? Ms. Osnes never grows into a movie star translation of hard-luck Bonnie. She’s not cute, vivacious, hard as nails or a model for fashion-trendy costumes. But she has an intrinsically musical instrument that projects beyond the footlights to touch the mezzanine. When she wraps her throat around a creamy ballad like “You Love Who You Love” in an attempt to justify her guilty passion for a hot-blooded bank robber like Clyde Barrow, she has the power to move you to tears. She was a terrific second banana to Sutton Foster in the frisky revival of Anything Goes before she created the role of Bonnie Parker in San Diego, and if the show closes prematurely, I sincerely hope to meet up with her again in a cabaret spotlight in one of New York’s swankier supper clubs. As for the boyishly handsome Mr. Jordan, who dazzled as Tony in the recent West Side Story resuscitation, he can stomp the stage to toothpicks on a rousing number like “Raise a Little Hell” or half-rise naked from a bathtub on a bruising love song with equal aplomb worthy of a closer look (no pun intended). Rising close to their marks and holding her own corner of the stage in every scene is Melissa Van Der Schyff, a knockout belter with a name that regrettably comes close to a fatal detour on the road to stardom; most people have forgotten it already. She plays the sympathetic and pivotal role of Blanche Barrow, the wife of Clyde’s brother Buck and a woman who sacrifices her ideals and self-respect for love, which won Estelle Parsons an Oscar. She stops the show as a kind of operatic Dolly Parton, while the audience begs for more.
Harkening back to the Depression years, director Jeff Calhoun wastes no time getting to the violence. The curtain rises on the movie’s final scene—a bullet-riddled Model T containing the blood-splattered bodies of the country’s most cherished romantic outlaws, gunned down on a Louisiana highway in 1934, rolls out onstage for a good look before the first song. Then the fact-crammed book by Ivan Menchell begins to assemble the reasons why two hormone-busting kids from a dusty, life-wasting butt end of Texas rose from unlucky teenagers to the Most Wanted List in sheriff’s offices throughout the Southwest. Clyde was the tortured son of a sharecropper from Telico, Texas (“That man puts the Hell in Hello!”). Bonnie was an eager, easily manipulated, muffin-headed waitress from Rowena who spent her spare change on movie magazines and helped Clyde break out of jail after he promised to get her to Hollywood. His role model is Al Capone, and she worships Clara Bow. Their story unfolds against a backdrop of wooden slats against which you are educated and fascinated by yellowing newspaper articles, mug shots and arresting Police Gazette daguerreotypes of faces and scenes right out of The Grapes of Wrath—projections bordering on folk art, depicting starving children, breadlines, families in tents and President Roosevelt’s guarantee of a New Deal. Slowly, you begin to understand why Bonnie and Clyde broke the law to ensure a better life they could not afford. By the time they realize they’ve crossed over to the dark side, their love duet, “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” has the resigned element of an adrenalin-pumped future that is anything but rosy. What gives the show its grit, urgency and complexity is the frailty, the flaws and the courage of two tragic lovers—good and evil, brave and foolish—defying the odds to capture the imagination of a nation that wanted to believe a pair of hearts could still beat in the middle of dustbowl economics, prejudice and hopelessness.
There are irritating intrusions, including signing autographs after a robbery while the police sirens close in, arguing about whose name should go first in the front-page newspaper stories (Bonnie insists on the same “Bonnie and Clyde” she uses for the title of her long, ballad-shape poem that was published after their deaths, insisting, “Sorry, honey, but nothin’ rhymes with Clyde and Bonnie”). Then there is the score, mediocre at worst, but sometimes a great deal better than that. I’ve never been a fan of Don Black’s corny kindergarten lyrics to James Bond theme songs (“Thunderball,” anyone?) and lugubrious Andrew Lloyd Webber scores, or of composer Frank Wildhorn’s cloying music for boring period pieces (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Jekyll and Hyde, The Civil War), but Mr. Wildhorn does his best, most diversified work here. He has never settled on a uniformly identifiable style, which is O.K., I guess, as long as the style you settle on is not lachrymose musical sludge. This time, his music is surprisingly melodic and versatile. For two rebels with a cause outside the law, trapped victims of the Depression, the romantic, deluded protagonists of Bonnie and Clyde invite an eclectic and restless surge of beats and rhythms and styles, moving through the cycles of doom with reckless fury. The two stars do their darnedest to flesh out both the danger and romance that turned them into folk heroes, and Mr. Wildhorn’s eclectic score gives them room to test their contrasting moods: country, Broadway, blues, and Texas two-step music fit for a county fair, with banjos, rodeo fiddles and, am I wrong, or did I hear a harmonica somewhere in the orchestra pit? Jeff Calhoun sews it together on a Depression canvas broad enough to reflect a whole decade. I’m glad he included actual photos of the real Bonnie and Clyde. She was no Faye Dunaway, and he was plain as a plow mule in a tobacco field.
And so we’ve got ourselves here a down-home musical with guns and whiskey and take-home tunes. You could do worse. Is it great? It’s no My Fair Lady. Will it go down in Broadway history as a milestone? Probably not. But I found it tuneful, lively and highly enjoyable. Just ignore the mixed reviews, and have a rompin’, stompin’ good time.
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