BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Heated performances, a tasty helping of country-fried tunes and plenty of kiss-kiss-bang-bang action drive the new Broadway musical “Bonnie & Clyde,” which opened on Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
This darkly romantic depiction of ill-fated lovers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose bloody crime spree across the Dust Bowl nearly made them folk heroes to the depressed masses of the 1930s, proves to be a sincere, sturdily-built musical that falls somewhat short of hitting the emotional bull’s-eye.
Book-writer Ivan Menchell provides a swift, effective rendition of the real-life saga best known today as a classic 1967 film. Opening with the police ambush that cuts down Bonnie and Clyde, the show flashes back to reveal the couple’s childhood longings for fame – she pines to be Clara Bow, he wants to be Billy the Kid – and color in the bleak social background for their criminal adventures.
By the time they meet, Bonnie already has ditched a husband and Clyde is a jailbird on the lam. Their romance does not please their families, which includes Clyde’s brother Buck and sister-in-law Blanche, who eventually join the twosome on their helter-skelter exploits. The gang’s series of hold-ups, which includes a funny episode at a bank that is out of money, turn increasingly gory as police pursue them.
Amid the carnage, composer Frank Wildhorn delivers one of his liveliest, most enjoyable scores in years. Handsomely orchestrated with hillbilly accents by John McDaniel, the music faithfully reflects the story’s Western roots and 1930s times. The couple’s joyfully reckless anthem, “This World Will Remember Us,” is the most insistent tune – it’s a genuine toe-tapper – but several other melodic honeys also sweeten the musical. Among them, Bonnie’s sultry “How ‘Bout a Dance?” contrasts with a later, poignant “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” plaint, while she and Blanche share a fervent “You Love Who You Love” power ballad.
Don Black’s lyrics are more capable than inspired, but the propulsive energy of Wildhorn’s music helps to speed the two-act show’s series of brief scenes, which are seamlessly and vividly staged by director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun. Yet in spite of Calhoun’s forceful production and the strong performances he obtains, the musical never achieves the tragic pathos that its makers obviously hope to create.
The show occasionally jolts but it generally fails to electrify viewers or inspire much pity for its hard-luck protagonists. Perhaps a full-blown operatic treatment is the only way to illuminate a story as dark as this one.
A willowy, sweet-voiced Laura Osnes portrays Bonnie with a natural radiance that never dims. Baby-faced Jeremy Jordan gives Clyde a killer smile and a boyish manner that hardens with trouble. Often droll as the wet-blanket Blanche, Melissa Van Der Schyff strikingly spikes her songs with a Grand Old Opry vibrato. Claybourne Elder is stalwart as hapless brother Buck while Louis Hobson believably goes to pieces as a nice deputy who courted Bonnie before she met Clyde. Michael Lanning, Leslie Becker and Mimi Bessette head the robust ensemble who lends drawling authenticity to the many c haracters they depict.
Production designer Tobin Ost dresses everyone in lived-in 1930s clothes while providing a hardscrabble environment of weathered planks, battered jalopies and desolate vistas that accommodates the fluent action capably, thanks in part to Michael Gilliam’s bold lighting. Headlines, vintage photos and stylized moving images designed by Aaron Rhyne help to relate the story and illustrate the tough times that led Bonnie and Clyde to their desperate bid for fame.
“Bonnie & Clyde” continues an open-end run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.bonnieandclydebroadway.com.