Friday, November 11, 2011

theatre review BONNIE AND CLYDE, Broadway, November 10

The new Broadway musical Bonnie and Clyde is a throwback to original musicals of the past. It isn't based on a movie, not a revival and doesn't feature a Hollywood name in the lead. It is simply a new musical, based on real people, with a pretty good score, a clear book with period perfect dialogue and well crafted book scenes that naturally dissolve into and out of the songs. It also features two star turns in its two lead roles. The show is currently in previews and opens on December 1.

For those who don't know who Bonnie and Clyde were, they were two outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who started out in 1930's Texas and along with a few others became famous for robbing many stores and banks across several states. This was the time of the Great Depression and they both came from poor families and became minor celebrities due to the robberies and the fact that they were unmarried 20 year olds on the run. Several men, including some police officers, were killed during the robberies and those murders along with their new found fame and notoriety, made them a focus of a manhunt which ended in them being ambushed and killed. The musical covers all of that and more, wisely starting with the ambush, then going back to when they were both about 12 and showing how they met and what started them on their life of crime.

Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan
Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan are Bonnie and Clyde and they are both simply perfect for the parts. While both have had lead roles on Broadway before this is the first time for both of them to originate a lead role in New York. They both portray their roles naturally and are absolutely believable as these two famous people. Jordan is especially great in the several dialogue heavy moments he has, completely throwing himself into the part. You clearly see the desperation he feels and how he gets off on the life he has chosen, but when he kills his first person you also see the feelings going through his mind and how that completely impacts him especially when he realizes things will never be the same from then on in. Osnes portrays Bonnie as the perfect gun moll, but also has the same passion and desire for something different and exciting that Jordan also has. She is conflicted in her love for bad boy Clyde and like Jordan excels with the smartly written dialogue. You never once doubt the heat, passion and connection that the two of them have for each other. They both also have amazing voices and are given some great songs to sing.

Elder and Van der Schyff with Osnes and Jordan in the background
The show also features Claybourne Elder as Clyde's brother Buck and Melissa van der Schyff as Buck's wife Blanche. Van der Schyff is a standout, and might see a Tony nomination come May. She perfectly captures the God loving woman who also loves her man, even when he is doing wrong. She has been given a fully fleshed out character to play as well, more so than Elder, who's Buck could be more layered, though that isn't a fault of Elder's. Louis Hobson as Ted the policeman who has a thing for Bonnie has a nice duet with Jordan where they both profess their love for her and is used effectively throughout the show to form a version of a love triangle with our two leads.  As far as the ensemble goes, Michael Lanning is given some nice moments and solo parts as the preacher and his folk inspired voice works perfectly with the score.  The rest of the small ensemble plays multiple parts effectively and pretty much everyone is given an important character to play in the progress of the plot, even if it is just one with a few lines.

One of the many photos of actual people
that are projected throughout the show
and mirror the characters on stage
Composer Frank Wildhorn hasn't had a big Broadway hit in a long time. I'm not sure if this show will be the hit he's been hoping for, but I think it just might be. He has wisely collaborated with lyricist Don Black and book writer Ivan Menchell instead of the past Broadway collaborators for his shows Wonderland and Civil War that barely ran beyond their opening nights.

Wildhorn's score features elements of country, bluegrass, gospel and blues as well as more traditional musical theatre ballads. They all fit perfectly with the time period of the story and feature some beautiful orchestrations by John McDaniel that have some lovely period perfect banjo moments. It is Wildhorn's best musical score since The Scarlet Pimpernel and is one that I think will grow on people on repeated listenings, so they'd be wise to get a cast album recorded and released soon. There are many catchy tunes, much more so then last season's Wonderland. I'm not sure if Wildhorn has wisely chosen not to include any power ballads like were present in his previous shows or if they got cut along the way over the development period of this show. But I'm glad there aren't any as the character driven ballads that are present are natural fits to the characters and the time and place of the story and aren't just generic pop rock ballads like Wildhorn has sometimes been accused of writing for his other shows.

Michael Lanning and the ensemble combine with actual pictures to form
a realistic "breadline" from the Great Depression
The book by Ivan Menchell doesn't feature any moment or scene that doesn't add to the overall plot and thrust of the show, every scene is important. There also aren't any unnecessary characters to get in the way of the story. A lot happens in the 2 1/2 hours. Director Jeff Calhoun keeps the action moving forward swiftly and stages the show with a clear purpose. The book scenes are especially well done and the actors portraying Young Bonnie and Young Clyde (Kelsey Fowler and Talon Ackerman) are never cloying or annoying, which Calhoun has to take credit for. The expert staging of various songs, including some knock out duets, a shootout that stops midway for a very dramatic moment and the touching scenes with our main characters and their family members are testament to Calhoun's abilities.

Jordan and Elder, front right - note the newspaper article text
projected on the wooden scrim
Now I'm not sure how much liberty has been taken with the plot details in the show from the actual events but a note in the playbill does make mention to the research that the author has done. The show portrays the poverty and desperation both lead characters feel that are the basis for why they have the dreams they do. The show wisely uses the 12 year old versions of the characters in the very beginning of the musical to set those dreams in motion.  Bonnie wants to be a movie star just like Clara Bow and Clyde wants to be just like Billy the Kid.  She is the small town girl who dreams of getting her picture in a magazine and a life on the silver screen in Hollywood and he is a boy who wants to escape from the poor life he has.  I did like how Bonnie's poems are part of the show, even leading into some song lyrics and when a newspaper publishes one of her poems it echos her dream of being in a magazine.

While the musical wisely never attempts to lay blame on anyone else but themselves as to why Bonnie and Clyde did what they did, the beatings that Clyde got in prison from both other prisoners and the guards and the mentions of Clyde and Buck being arrested or questioned by police various times for no reason at all does flesh out why Clyde and his brother have a violent streak in them. Combine this with the many views of poverty and depression and you see why Clyde decides to rob a few stores for some quick cash. However, I wish the book was just a little more focused around the world around our main characters. Sure, there is much talk about the Depression and we see bread lines and hear of how people are starving and out of work, but we rarely get a sense as to how the politicians were doing nothing to help which also contributed to many people feeling restless and desperate, which is a big reason why Bonnie and Clyde and countless others turned to a life of crime.  By focusing on the tragic love story at the center, the show tries to get us to be able to connect more with the leads, but without clearly showing the impact of the world around them we lose the emotional connection to our characters that would elevate the show even more.

Osnes and Jordan
The one big obstacle that Bonnie and Clyde has is that its two main characters are ones who you don't naturally want to root for.  I mean, they are cold blooded killers after all.  But because pretty much anyone seeing the show knows how the story will end, and if you didn't know you find out in the first 30 seconds of the show, the musical wisely focuses on how the characters got to be who they are and their relationships with their families.  In doing so we are given the opportunity to see what draws Bonnie and Clyde to each other as well as how most of the main characters struggle somewhat with the decisions they made. The musical doesn't excuse them for what they did or try to explain why they did what they did, and by not doing that it makes a good attempt to get you to feel for them much the way Chicago makes you connect to it's two main females, who are also both murderers. You may not want to like them but with the charisma of the characters and understanding somewhat of the desperation they feel, you end up feeling for them. Unlike Chicago, Bonnie and Clyde is a dark story based on real characters with plenty of stage blood and gunshots to remind us of how bloody and real it is, but there are also many moments of humor and humanity too.

The set design by Tobin Ost features a wood stage with ramps, steps and wood scrims which expertly sets us in the America Dust Bowl of the Depression period. Projections by Aaron Rhyne combine real photos of Bonnie and Clyde and the other real characters in the show as well as photos and newspaper articles from the period to draw you in to the desolate time and place the musical is set. The projections work perfectly on the light wood scrim walls.  Ost also did the costumes and there are several times when the costumes are almost perfect matches to the images we see in the projections.  Lighting by Michael Gilliam is appropriately atmospheric, whether it be a dark prison scene or lights in the forest from a car or a manhunt.

I'm not sure how much will change during the preview process, but with just a few tweaks Bonnie and Clyde could be a big hit.

On a side note, Calhoun, Jordan, and Ost were all involved in the recent smash hit production of Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse that just ended a few weeks back.  If that show comes in to Broadway next Spring like rumours have it, and they somehow get Jordan to appear in it, they all could find themselves with multiple Tony Nom's come May.

Official Show Site

TV ad - Behind the Scenes video -

A song from the show- "This World Will Remember Us" -

Rehearsal footage -

1 comment:

  1. Actually, Don Black WAS one of his collaborators on Dracula.