Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Bonnie & Clyde' Dares Us To Pay Attention

From left, Bennie & Clyde director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun, scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost, and actors Claybourne Elder (Buck Barrow) and Melissa Van Der Schyff (Blanche Barrow) discuss the new musical last night at a post-performance session on Broadway.
Nearly eight decades after their bloody rampage through dustbowl America during the Great Depression the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow continues to hold a power over us.
Clyde met Bonnie when he was 20 and she was 19.
She enjoyed writing poetry and dreamed of a life in Hollywood or on Broadway. Her idol was the "It Girl," Clara Bow. He was brash, charming, restless and full of bravado.
It doesn't seem that either one of them actually set out to become criminals. But they were much defined by their era -- a time when all traditional sources of economic livelihood (and economic support) had failed.
At the height of the economic crisis unemployment soared up to 25 percent but was actually much worse in farming and rural areas where crop prices fell by as much as 60 percent and there was no demand for alternate jobs. Primary sector industries like cash cropping, mining, and logging were particularly hard hit. Amidst it all, there was no unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no food stamps, no school lunch program, none of the elements of the "safety net" that Americans now take for granted.
And obviously the economic collapse and the failure of Wall Street and banks produced tremendous resentment toward the powers that be and, by extension toward most traditional sources of authority.
This is the environment that produced Bonnie and Clyde.
And this is what helped to make them twisted tabloid heroes. In a bizarre way, this was their claim to fame: They were in open, brazen, bloody rebellion against authority of any kind.
We all know how the story ended: Bonnie and Clyde died in a thunderous hail of bullets after they were met by a police posse as they prepared to reunite with family members.
Over 20,000 people turned out for Bonnie Parker's funeral. And though Clyde's funeral was private, thousands jammed the streets around a Dallas funeral home hoping to similarly be part of his services.
They wanted to be famous (or infamous) and they succeeded. To this day, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow live on.
Now along comes Bonnie & Clyde, the musical which has just opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway.
With a book by Ivan Menchell, lyrics by Don Black, music by Frank Wildhorn and two young, luminescent stars in Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan this show sets out to strip Barrow and Parker of the legend and folklore that surrounds them, presenting these two sociopaths just as they were.
The director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun (who was mentored by the great Tommy Tune) describes Bonnie & Clyde as "a play with music." And the scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost says he was inspired by the rural milieu of weathered wood planks, barns and burlap. So, if you're expecting a big, splashy, showy Broadway musical with great set-ups and huge production numbers, forget about it.
And if you're planning on taking the children, forget about that as well. This ain't no family show and it's not musical comedy, though there are wonderful comedic moments.
This is musical theatre.
But then again, how could the story of Bonnie and Clyde ever be anything other than that?
So, this is a sepia-toned story that moves along to its conclusion much like a rediscovered tale. And it's punctuated by a melodic mixture of ragtime, country and jazz that comprises Frank Wildhorn's best (and most disciplined) musical work ever.
And the cast is up to the challenge of the book, lyrics and music.
Jeremy Jordan's dark eyes, full lips, wide smile and confident swagger make him a perfectly irresistible Clyde. And when he sings he expresses the deeper, haunting, soulful side of his character, making him all the more vulnerable and all the more human. Laura Osnes is a fully-realized Bonnie Parker: romantic, sexy,  seductive and thoroughly American. She's lively, independent and capricious though nonetheless mesmerized by Clyde. Still, she insists on answering only to her heart and Osnes' impressive musical range allows her to express all this in one song after another. She's incredible.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive, including Melissa Van Der Schyff as Blanche Barrow, Claybourne Elder as Buck Barrow, Louis Hobson as Ted Hinton and Joe Hart as Sheriff Schmid. In fact the entire 25-member company of actors constitutes an first-rate ensemble.
Second act problems are practically a staple of Broadway musicals. Oftentimes a show starts with a great flourish and builds to a rousing first-act curtain only to rumble through a reprise-laden second act where the story seems to lose its way and the show becomes all-too-familiar. Bonnie & Clyde doesn't suffer this fate. The show takes its time to build. It's not out to take your breath away right from the getgo. It lets the story unfold. And by the time the principals sing "What Was Good Enough For You" in the second act, you realize that you're hooked. As unappealing as these criminals may seem, you discover that something about them has crawled into your consciousness. You're captivated, if not complicit.
At one point Bonnie Parker confronts one of her family members who warns her (and it's quite obvious by this time in the story) that she and Clyde will die a young, bloody and tragic death. They will be dead sooner rather than later. And the mention of the word "dead" sends her into a mini-rage. And she answers: "Dead? Dead? We're the only ones who are really alive!" It's not that Bonnie doesn't know that she and Clyde will meet this end. It's just that she sees hopelessness and despair among ordinary, law-abiding citizens all around her and she and her lover are alive in a rush of wildness. This is their life and they can see no other way out. These sentiments are ably and beautifully expressed in the songs "Raise A Little Hell" and "Dyin Ain't So Bad." Other memorable numbers include "The World Will Remember Me/Us" and "How 'Bout A Dance."
But there's another thing going on here as well: Bonnie & Clyde plays not only to our natural (and generally healthy) skepticism of authority and authority figures but also to our suspicion of unbridled power, particularly the power of the law. Let's face it: we've all felt haunted at one time or another by the power wielded by the precinct house, the prison guard or the local magistrate, not to mention more massive operations such as the FBI or even the TSA. Even if we're not guilty, a mere inquiry from any one of them can often  leave us filled with fear and loathing. That's no small factor in the curious public notoriety achieved by gangsters and other hardened criminals. They're appeal is not unrelated to some dark, resentful and envious place deep inside of us.
According to the authors of this daring production, Bonnie and Clyde recreates a time when "an upturn in the economy and a fair shot at a fulfilling life seemed as distant as the promise of the American Dream" -- a time when villains seemed like heroes and those who should have been heroic figures often appeared to be the real villains.
It was a time not so different (and not really so distant) from our own.
The story of Bonnie & Clyde resonates in this significant new musical. And the show (live the characters themselves) demands your immediate attention.
Click here for tickets and more information.

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