Music by Frank Wildhorn
Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell, Book
Direction & Musical Staging by Jeff Calhoun
Starring Laurie Osnes & Jeremy Jordan
Presented by Asolo Repertory Theatre
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts' Mertz Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, 941-351-8000, Nov. 12 to Dec. 19, 2010

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Described as a New Musical, "Bonnie & Clyde" picks up La Jolla Playhouse's '09 world premiere story of bandit lovers and infuses it with a socio-economic context for their aspirations and actions. I suspect (since I didn't see the original) that it gains not only more but most from Asolo Rep's typical extravagant production values.  Those I liked a lot. But I found the play, except for its songs, wanting. Reportedly en route to Broadway, it hasn't yet avoided potholes on its path.
With blazing shots in darkness from all sides, a central wood-lathed panel, in a background of  three,  reveals  the blasted dead (Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan) in their auto. Surrounding slide and video projections give the 1934 date and ambiance. All lead to the flashback that's the show. Activity takes place in and before the panels as well as on the full stage or aslant on parts of it, aided by props and---as in a church, cell or bank---enclosures.  Action, usually punctuated by song, begins in 1920, introducing the leads' families and their plights. These, despite the background pics and newspaper items, don't come over as horrific, nor for the Texas Baptist church goers shown praying for better times. The Barrows make a lousy living from a gas station. The Parkers had to move to a squatters' camp but Bonnie's widowed mother finally gets a (presumably humble) home. Yet from their youth, Bonnie longed to become an admired It Girl in a "Picture Show" like Clara Bow while Clyde wanted to shoot guns, drive a fast car, and be a famous gangster like Billy the Kid.  When they meet as young adults, Clyde explains "Everyone's got dreams. I got plans!" Each  agrees  "This World Will Remember Me" if they get and act together. And, as everyone today knows, they do.
Bonnie never waivers from her love for Clyde and faith that he'll get her to Hollywood. No suspense there. Mom Emma (Mimi Bessette) can't warn her off him.  Hopeful nice cop Ted (Kevin Massey) seems to be around mainly to pop up at intervals as a suitor to persuade Bonnie "You Can Do Better Than Him."  Having already piled up a record, Clyde wants brother  Buck (Claybourne Elder) as partner in crime.  At the urging of his wife Blanche (Melissa Van Der Schyff) to repent and go straight, Buck gets baptized (to the rousing gospel song "God's Arms Are Always Open"). For a fresh start, the brothers submit to be judged for a minor crime.  Buck is probationed to Blanche, but Clyde's past joins his present to land him two years in prison. Bullied by jailers, beaten and raped by a prisoner, Clyde will escape, hook up with Bonnie, and return to crime. When he kills a cop, they pledge it's "Too Late to Turn Back Now." Thence, the second act essentially repeats the first's dreams, choices, decisions, and events, even the final joyful "This World Will  Remember  Us."  Along the way to the well known conclusion, though, are delicious bits of humor, such as Bonnie signing  her autograph at a robbery, Clyde enjoying reading  reports of his exploits, and her citing the need for easy end-rhyming as the reason her name goes first in her poems about them.   
Does adding a social context make up for lack of suspense? Book writer Ivan Menchell tries, in effect, to justify the lovers' acts by showing them "the end product of a uniquely American decade defined by poverty, greed, unemployment, violence, and desperation." But granting this also makes the musical "more compelling and timely," is that decade unique?  And why present the times with historical accuracy but ignore history's conclusion that the pair were psychopaths? People may have been fascinated with Bonnie and Clyde's exploits, but they weren't admired. Clyde was no Robin Hood, just a hood, and all the lawmen here or in history aren't villains.  The script also fails to explain why the couple never seem to travel anywhere leading to Hollywood, while maintaining it's their goal. 
What results from the inconsistencies plus lack of motivation and justification and sudden shifts (such as Buck's decision to rejoin Clyde) is failure to care about Bonnie and Clyde. What's pleasing is appealing Laura Osnes' and edgy Jeremy Jordan's sustained interpretation of those scarcely changing  characters. Their good looks and voices also fit them so well.  Like the leads, the present cast deserve to be Broadway bound: none more so than Van Der Schyff's insistent Blanche, Elder's humorous Buck, as well as the vocally impressive Massey, Bessette's Emma, Kelsey Fowler as Young Bonnie, and Daniel Cooney as Preacher  (among his six other brief roles).
Under John McDaniel, five musicians on piano, guitar, violin, percussion, and bass do full justice to Frank Wildhorn's  range  of music---rockabilly to ballads---appropriate to mood, action, era. (I suspect his fine gospel songs account greatly for the play's extended religious  thread.)  Don Black's excellent  lyrics do double duty as exposition and emotional expression, with bits of comic relief.  Ivan Menchell's dialogue is believable. He still has to develop the book but evidences capability to accomplish this not easy task. All the artists give credit to Asolo Rep's artistic director Michael Donald Edwards for his contributions to increasing the dynamism of the work's point of view. Considering the challenge, dramatic and musical director Jeff Calhoun has made a relatively small cast seem larger but better at getting  behind  the scenes of  Bonnie and Clyde's and related lives, away from the chases and capers shown in the famed movie.  I hope he will direct the next phase of the musical's development to be as involving  as entertaining,  as artistic as technically awesome.  Fact or fiction, I want every element of the story to be credible.
Tobin Ost designed set and costumes; Michael Gilliam, lights; Kevin Kennedy, sound; Aaron Rhyne, projections; Carol F. Doran, hair and wigs.  Paul J. Smith is Production Stage Manager and Kelly A. Borgia  is Stage Manager for the 2 hour, 40 minutes production with a 15 minute intermission.  
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