Monday, December 26, 2011

Time is Running Out for Bonnie & Clyde

It was still tough, but New York offered comparatively more opportunities during the Great Depression (as opposed to the current lousy one), thanks to the skyscraper building boom. In contrast, West Dallas was pretty much dust bowl bleak. However, two tempestuous lovers rose up from this hardscrabble environment to become folk heroes in their own time. Forever immortalized in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, the more historically accurate life story of the bank-robbing duo has been set to music. However, if you want to see Bonnie & Clyde (promo here) on Broadway you had better move fast. It closes this Friday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

West Dallas was sort of the end of the line in the 1930’s. It was where Clyde Chestnut Barrow’s family drifted into a squatter’s camp after losing their sharecropping work. Constantly in trouble with the law, the young Barrow grew up idolizing Billy the Kid. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker saw herself as the next Clara Bow, but she would settle for anything but average.

Barrow and his brother Buck were already fugitive escapees when he first meets Parker. The Brothers Barrow would soon be back in the slammer, with Buck voluntarily turning himself in and Clyde returning the hard way. In fact, this prison stretch would change everything for the famous Barrow, turning him into a killer, even before Parker aided and abetted his escape. At that point, the die is essentially cast for the gangster-lovers, but they intend to go out in style.

Is there anything as romantic as a hail of bullets? Shrewdly, book writer Ivan Menchell puts it up top, telling their story in flashback form in a way that seems almost empowering, as though Bonnie and Clyde are going out on their own terms. Indeed, B&C is pretty hot for Broadway, aside from the thinly veiled prison rape references, which are a real mood killer. They certainly sway audience sympathies towards Barrow though.

It is rather surprising drama critics did not more fully embrace B&C, considering how easy it would be to dub it the Occupy West Dallas musical. Clearly tapping into the Steinbeckian Depression era mythos, it even employs iconic Dorothea Lange photos as part of its backdrop image projections.

If you want a lesson in economic history, you should probably not look for it in a Broadway theater. In truth, one of the great distractions of B&C is that it never asks what ultimately happens to the many mom & pop general stores Barrow hold-up. On the other hand, if you are coming for the music, Frank Wildhorn’s tunes are quite strong, deftly integrating elements of era-appropriate Gospel, blues and roots music, while staying within the comfort zone of Broadway performers. Don Black’s lyrics are also sharp and frequently loaded with smart historical references. Their words and music are well served by some inventive staging, with several tunes cleverly evolving into unexpected duets.

It is also surprising that B&C could not generate more heat from the presence of lead actress Laura Osnes as the “ravishing redhead.” The winner of the NBC reality show You’re the One that I Want that produced the cast of the most recent Grease revival, she is one of the few pure theater performers who can claim a national following. She is also quite good in the part, displaying a rich voice and scorching Maggie the Cat-like stage presence. Although not as magnetic, Jeremy Jordan has the right fierce intensity to carry off Barrow and also has pretty strong chops as well.

It is a shame B&C is closing, because it is a fine star vehicle for Osnes and it employs some very stylistically flexible musicians in the pit, who, led by musical director Jason Howland, really have a spring in their step. Despite its relatively short stage life there will be a cast album forthcoming and a production is scheduled to open in Tokyo next month, so there will be a few more chapters for the show. Recommended for those who like a bit of blues and twang in their book musicals, Bonnie & Clyde runs through Friday (12/30) on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld.

(Photo: Nathan Johnson)