Bonnie and Clyde: Lovers until the end
LA JOLLA, California —We can deny it all we want but most of us are intrigued with the glamour and glitz that goes along with most Hollywood types. In some cases it doesn’t even have to belong to Hollywood at all. I love reading about legendary figures; what they do, how they did it, how they arrived at becoming so big and how the press and public treat and/or react toward them. (Oy, poor Tiger)
There is something both mysterious and romantic about the idea of saying, “to hell with convention, I’m going to do it my way” (Frank did) because that’s usually the case when someone we read about seems larger than life.
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were two such characters, and I use the word characters not in a demeaning sort of way, but to illustrate that they were truly characters of their own making; their very own creations who lived up to and in some ways beyond their own expectations for whatever that’s worth.
Many who saw the 1967 movie version of their escapades will remember the beautiful Faye Dunaway as the sculptured and lean Bonnie Parker and the handsome, virile and sinewy Warren Beatty on the run, bathtub lovers whose claim to fame followed them wherever they went, whatever they did even in the afterlife.
So it goes with the new Ivan Menchell (book), Frank Wildhorn (music) and Don Black (lyrics) depression era musical drama Bonnie and Clyde now in a world premiere at The La Jolla Playhouse through Dec. 20th. What you might ask, do Bonnie and Clyde and musical theatre have to do with each other? Before I saw the show someone asked me, “Who wants to see a shoot em up musical about two pesky, self-absorbed outlaws who randomly killed innocent bystanders or anyone else who got in their way”? Based on the opening night’s audience response, a lot, I guess!
The three creators Menchell, Wildhorn and Black come to the table with serious credits to their names. Menchell worked on the book to the musicals The Prince and the Pauper, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and now Bonnie and Clyde. He also wrote the bittersweet 1990 comedy The Cemetery Club about three Jewish widows whose husbands died and the widows are now in different stages of healing. They meet once a month at the cemetery, where the three deceased spouses lay buried, to pay their respects. It later became a movie starring Ellen Burstyn and Olympia Dukakis. Wildhorn’s Scarlet Pimpernel and Jekyll & Hyde with Black’s Sunset Boulevard complete the troika.
If anyone had any doubts that the story of the star crossed lovers, Bonnie and Clyde would be different or had somehow changed from the two outlaws that they eventually became or that the ending might be more glamorous because it is a musical, doubt no longer. Menchell relied on several sources to write the book for the show; Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn, Bonnie and Clyde The Lives Behind the Legend by Paul Schneider and ‘from first hand accounts taken from the book Ambushed by Ted Hinton’.
While some practice at changing history, these collaborators, according to interviews with the creators about the making of the show, were more interested in focusing on the “tragic love triangle between Bonnie, Clyde and Ted Hinton (the Dallas County, Texas Deputy Sheriff who was the youngest of the posse that ambushed the couple and killed them outside Louisiana in 1934. He tried to court her with the approval of her mother before she met up with Clyde) and how Bonnie and Clyde were and what it must have been like for the parents to have children like this?”
To sum it up Menchell added… “We want all of it-the tragic love story, the passion, the commitment to family, everything that endears us to them-and yet still keep them homicidal”. Tongue in cheek or not, I think we got it all under the fine direction and musical staging of Jeff Calhoun and his talented pool of actors and technical staff.
It’s almost hard to believe that the couple was barely out of their teens when they met, robbed more than a dozen banks, killed 13 innocent people and were gunned down by a volley of bullets in their car and all before they were out of their twenties. What a waste of human life! Funny thing is (and the musical capsules this) they both came from decent hard working families.
Ironically, Clyde’s brother Buck (Claybourne Elder) was also drawn into the mix while his zealously religious wife Blanche (Melissa van der Schyff You’re Not Going Back to Jail) tried to keep him on the straight and narrow but he couldn’t resist the money and the excitement. On the other hand Bonnie’s devoted, both religiously and maternally, mother Emma (Beautifully and poignantly portrayed by Mare Winningham) tried to reason with and counsel her daughter to no avail as well.
The story plays out against the depression era backdrop on Tobin Ost’s multi level set of sliding bleached plank boards that frame the backdrop (used successfully for Aaron Rhyne’s projections of the real life characters which brought the story back to reality) of the different locations giving the impression and the look of a drought-ridden locale. Ost also designed the 30’s looking costumes; Bonnie’s being the most eye catching while the others are depression- era perfect.
For a new musical, Wildhorn’s score is catching, with a combination of blues, gospel, folk and ballads that reveal the moods, times and characters it depicts. The tone of The Long Arm of the Law sung by the Sheriff (Wayne Duvall) in Act I and then at the end of Act I in a reprieve are powerful reminders of who the two are and that they will get their comeuppance.
Compared to Emma’s lament, The Devil sung with passion and grief for her daughter to You Love Who You Love, (Bonnie and Blanche) You’re Going Back to Jail, (Blanche and Salon women) The World Will Remember Me (Clyde and Bonnie) and finally Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad (Bonnie and Clyde) the music’s trajectory with its differing styles moves the story but never really reveals any more about the players, their motives or drives than what we hear in their conversations or see in their actions. Some of the reprieves could be eliminated to shorten the length without taking anything away from the overall production.
Clyde was a conceited self professed bad boy who never looked back on what he did or thought, “Other people got dreams, I got plans”. For him there was no option; no plan ‘B’. And in a brief exchange when Bonnie commends his shooting skills she says, “You’re good”. “I’m not good, I’m the best” he retorts.
His biggest complaint was that Bonnie never put his name first in her poems about them. She hoped to get them published some day. (You’ve read the story of Jessie James of how he lived and how they died. If you’re still in need of something to read, here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde… Some day they’ll go down together they’ll bury then side-by-side. To few it will be grief, to the law a relief, but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde. The Trails End by Bonnie Parker). And they were.
Stark Sands has the perfect look and mannerism as the self-confident and arrogant bad boy, Clyde Barrow who entices Bonnie to travel with him convincing her that they would be good together. He’s also in fine voice especially since this is his first musical. He shows no remorse for anything he has done, he’s that vain. Stark is convincing in his mannerisms and ways and a perfect match with Laura Osnes’ Bonnie.
Laura Osnes is a beautiful, bored and captivating Bonnie Parker whose need to escape from the humdrum world of her mother, working as a waitress in the depressed and repressive Texas and tired of her would-be suitor is a recurring theme. Between her lust for adventure and a willingness to follow Clyde into any situation and his need to be recognized at any cost, the formula for disaster is set.
Calhoun’s eye for the perfect cast is evident in the fact that there isn’t a weak link anywhere. Wayne Duvall is excellent as the out to get the pair at any cost Sheriff. Mike Sears (fresh from Man From Nebraska recently seen at the Cygnet Theatre) shows another side in multiple roles. Chris Peluso’s Ted is strong and well meaning as well as the strong arm of the law and Michael Lanning stirred the audience with his (God’s Arms Are Always Open) number as the preacher.
Music supervisor John McDaniel who is in charge of orchestrations, incidental music and vocal arrangements conducted his six-piece band flawlessly. Michael Gilliam and Brian Ronan are right on with the mood lighting and sound design.
The trio of creators makes a perfect case for the two young lovers to wreak havoc on those around them while still having some sympathy for those left to fend off the residual effects of their actions. Mare Winningham whose role of Emma, Bonnie’s mother, has been expanded from the movie version is very much a part of the backdrop as is Clyde’s brother Buck whose loyalties lay on the side of Clyde rather than the pleas of his wife and his mother.
Menchell’s book is captivating and enticing and the two lovers create a convincing and tragic love story. Black’s lyrics are both fun and pointed and get the message across but its Wildhorn whose musical variety and mix of different genres that are the most impressive.
Like it or not is what it is and if we don’t learn from our past it will bite us in the end. Walking to my car, I heard someone actually humming a tune from the show. That’s always a good sign. Enjoy! Hats off to the La Jolla Playhouse.
Bonnie and Clyde will continue through Dec. 20th in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
See you at the theatre and Happy Chanukah!
Davis, a San Diego based theatre reviewer, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org