For highly prejudicial reasons that are the purview of gossip columns and backstage exposes, and have no place in a review, one sort of doesn’t want to like a Frank Wildhorn musical; before you enter the theatre, you’re braced for something whose conception is mercenary, cynical, pandering and calculated (wrongheadedly) to be commercial. So it takes a few minutes to shed your own cynicism and take the show on its own terms.
I’m a little surprised to report, therefore, that Bonnie and Clyde isn’t bad.
“Isn’t bad” is a far cry from “actually pretty good”, but acknowledges that, whether the mercenary calculation dovetailed with genuine artfulness, or the subject matter caused composer Wildhorn and his lyricist Don Black to write in a more humanist vein—credit that as well to a decent book by Ivan Menchell—a stopped clock is right twice a day, and maybe they were due, simply by dint of odds and persistence.
Not that I’m enthusiastic—the music, per usual for Wildhorn, strains to be populist, though he (and/or his arranger-orchestrator John McDaniel) have put it through enough of a stylistic filter to evoke depression-era America; and the lyrics by Black have about as much subtext as See Spot Run. But they tell the story coherently enough and give the actors a strong enough through-line to play coherently.
There is a problem that even Menchell’s libretto can’t fix, which is unfortunately built into the very subject matter. (Well, I’ll amend that: it may be fixable, but first it has to be acknowledged as a challenge of the material, and I don’t believe the authors were conscious of it as a problem.) And the problem is this: Most musicals that aren’t simply screwball comedy (Anything Goes), farce (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) or satire (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) are serious minded (if not solemnly so and often humorously so) about following a larger-than-life character through a rite of passage. (Even most of the lighter musicals follow an iconic character on some kind of quest, though it may not be one that alters his/her inner life, but rather only fulfills a desire. Which only works if the character is, indeed, essentially a comic archetype whose inner life is not something to be held to the scrutiny of a third dimension.) The title characters of Bonnie and Clydeare on a quest, sure enough, but—because they are intended to be perceived as three-dimensional historical figures whose ambition leads them to be complicit in the violent taking of life and to do so without remorse—rite-of-passage is denied them. She wants celebrity and fame, he wants quick wealth and gangster notoriety, and once they achieve it with the first kill…once they hit that point of no return…there’s no reassessing their choices, no crises of conscience, no growth, no irony, nothing transformative. (Even Sweeney Todd faces the moment where the blinders come off and he realizes the error of his ways, but the moment comes too late, which is what makes the story a tragedy, in the classic sense of the term.) Because they have no choice (or so they believe), they just follow their doomed path with increased commitment and escalated mayhem…which means that Act Two can do very little but tread water, playing ever-more-desperate variations on a theme. And unless a musical with such characters contains a moment of truth, a moment when the chickens come home to roost—I don’t mean the cruel, swift, semi-legal justice that was their famous “reward” for being thieves and murderers, I mean a moment in which they confront who they really are, by force of the circumstances they themselves have set in motion—there can be no ultimate narrative catharsis. Only the expectation of the inevitable spiral down. And a musical without such resolution is, however entertaining, a deeply unsatisfying thing. Such is Bonnie and Clyde.
Nonetheless, it’s not such a terrible place at which to while away some time; the cast is generally splendid, with Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan in the title roles, and as the secondary leads, Claybourne Elder (Clyde’s brother and fellow convict Henry) and Melissa Van der Schyff (Henry’s long-suffering but feisty and devoted wife) delivering memorable performances. Ms. Van der Schyff in particular may be delivering a career-making turn. And director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun has made more of the material than the material actually gives him to work with; by which I mean, his smart showmanship overcomes its transparency.
As I upload this review, I've just been informed that the closing notice has gone up. But for the record, before I knew that, the following was my final sentence…and paragraph: It’s a show that could easily stick around for a time, especially in an era when more unlikely mercenary ventures—Spiderman, anyone?—have managed to survive.
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