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Theater review: 'Bonnie & Clyde' at La Jolla Playhouse

November 23, 2009 |  6:00 pm
Bonnie and clyde

Bonnie and Clyde, those iconic, felonious sweethearts whose Depression-era crime spree tantalized the dark side of America’s imagination, have returned from the great tabloid beyond to prove their mythical appeal still has juice. And the occasion provides an opportunity to tweak one of Karl Marx’s most famous dictums: History, as "The Communist Manifesto” co-author should have said, repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as musical kitsch.

Yes, my friends, this most-wanted (and most proud of it) duo are now singing and dancing their infamous tale at the La Jolla Playhouse, where “Bonnie & Clyde” had its world premiere Sunday night. The show—featuring a book by Ivan Menchell (“The Cemetery Club”), music by Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and lyrics by Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”)—is inspired from historical accounts rather than existing dramatizations. Yet the creators find little to say about the romantic robbers that hasn’t been said more compellingly elsewhere.
 
The production, given a seductive modern staging by Jeff Calhoun (Deaf West’s “Big River” and “Pippin” at the Mark Taper Forum), is not without charm. Tobin Ost’s slatted wooden set, enhanced by Aaron Rhyne’s cunning projection designs and Michael Gilliam’s moody lighting, lends a fresh look to an old caper.

Bonnie The leads, handsomely attired by Ost, are striking as well. Laura Osnes’ Bonnie effectively works the red-headed moll temptress angle while Stark Sands' Clyde flaunts his ripped torso as often as possible. And both possess sharp musical instincts—a necessity in a show whose score flits from country & western to the blues to Broadway pop.

Don’t expect the kind of audacious character work director Arthur Penn elicited from Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in his landmark 1967 film. The show tosses around psychological details like chicken feed, but ultimately cares more about the surface story than its secret depths.

There’s mention of Clyde’s sexual inhibitions and his and Bonnie’s complicated attachments to their mothers, but they don’t extend our understanding of what makes them tick. The couple’s pathological bond is more or less chalked up to a mutual desire to get out of backwater Texas and a powder keg of economic resentment every bit as explosive as our own.

The nearest a musical has to a close-up (which Penn's film may have overindulged in) is a solo moment, but Wildhorn and Black have a fusty habit of putting songs in the service of plot rather than psychology. The Sheriff (Wayne Duvall), who has it in for Clyde and his brother, Buck (Claybourne Elder), lets us know he’s hot on their pursuit in “The Long Arm of the Law.” Buck’s wife, Blanche (Melissa van der Schyff), clearly spells out in “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” that no husband of hers is going to be a fugitive. The firearm number, "These Are What You Call Guns,” prepares us for the big shootout.

The diversity of Wildhorn’s score—expertly performed by an orchestra led by musical director and supervisor John McDaniel—is undeniably impressive. The gospel rouser “God’s Arms Are Always Open” didn’t have to be reprised in the choppy second act, though a little divine intervention may be needed to sort out Menchell’s storytelling, which loses momentum once Bonnie and Clyde are on the lam. But “This World Will Remember Me,” later transformed into “This World Will Remember Us,” has a jazzy breeziness that initially sets the production aloft. And Osnes and Sands excel in their duets, which are artfully enlivened (I’m tempted to say caressed) by Calhoun’s musical staging.

Sands brings a youthful vitality to his portrayal of Clyde, but it sometimes seems as if his character has more natural chemistry with Elder’s Buck than with Osnes’ Bonnie. Sure, Clyde has obscure difficulties with women, but his attachment to Bonnie seem less mysterious than sketchy. The fault lies not in his energetic performance but in the oddly humorless book.

“Bonnie & Clyde” is lavished with talent. The supporting cast features Emmy-winner Mare Winningham as Bonnie’s strong and steadfast mother and a piquant performance by Van der Schyff, whose Blanche is perhaps even more helplessly in love with her man than Bonnie is with Clyde. Again, I blame any ensemble weak spots on the deficiencies in the musical’s construction.

Basically, the show has two fundamental problems. Stylistically, the work seems beholden to conventional forms yet curious about modern breakthroughs. There’s something unsettled in the authors’ approach, as though they’re not sure if they want to live in a “Spring Awakening” loft or a guest house at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s McMansion.

The other issue relates to content: Just what is motivating the retelling of this story? A passion for historical accuracy? An interest in exploring the parallels between the Great Recession and the Great Depression? Neither, I’m afraid, is a substitute for artistic vision, and until that’s figured out, the finest stagecraft in the world won’t be able to redeem this crooked tale.

--Charles McNulty

Follow him on Twitter@charlesmcnulty

"Bonnie & Clyde," La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Dec. 20. $43-$78. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Related story:

'Bonnie & Clyde': Can it steal your heart?

Photos: Top: Stark Sands and Laura Osnes. Bottom: Sands and Claybourne Elder. Credit: Craig Schwartz

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