NEW YORK – Of all the legendary real-life outlaws who have cemented their place in the pages of classic Americana, few have been as iconically brought to life as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in the landmark 1967 Arthur Penn film. So it takes a bold creative vision to put a fresh stamp on the doomed Depression-era felons. The new musical Bonnie & Clyde assembles four talented leads in a good-looking production, but its trite storytelling leaves them shooting blanks.
Composer Frank Wildhorn has become a critical piñata on Broadway, with even his more commercially robust efforts like Jekyll & Hyde getting little love from reviewers. The fact that he’s back so soon after the stinging failure last season of Wonderland, an ungainly pop pastiche of Lewis Carroll, shows he’s nothing if not resilient.
His new musical is a considerable improvement. It contains some melodious tunes, albeit often with clumsily literal lyrics by Don Black. But the score is schizophrenic. While the music is strongest when it explores a 1930s vernacular in early scenes, Wildhorn can’t resist modernizing the sound, and his idea of contemporary is ‘80s rock and crossover country. It’s especially disconcerting when Clyde turns into Jon Bon Jovi.
More than the score, however, it’s the book by musical-theater newcomer Ivan Menchell that lacks texture. Its most probing insight is that starting in childhood, both Bonnie (Kelsey Fowler) and Clyde (Talon Ackerman) identified fame as their ticket out of dirt-poor drudgery in Texas. So Bonnie prays at her father’s funeral to succeed Clara Bow as the next It Girl, while Clyde hones his shooting skills, dreaming of being another Billy the Kid or Al Capone. It’s a viable setup, but when the connection between crime and celebrity is hammered over and over again, Bonnie & Clyde becomes a second-rate Chicago.
The show’s chief interest is the love story. There’s none of the sexual ambiguity of Warren Beatty’s Clyde in the Penn movie, which according to a program note was not grounded in factual research. The adult Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) here is a man with a lusty appetite for Bonnie (Laura Osnes), who responds with equal ardor. But despite the charms of the easy-on-the-eyes actors, who bring convincing chemistry and sterling vocals, the characters and their relationship never acquire much depth.
As Clyde graduates from theft to murder, Bonnie frets about following him down a fatal path. Her friends and family tell her to ditch the bad-seed trash, but she loves him. That tug-of-war between reason and romance remains stuck on repeat mode for much of the show. But Bonnie is increasingly seduced by their growing fame. She’s tickled when her poems about their outlaw exploits are published in newspapers and True Detective magazine calls her a “ravishing redhead.”
There’s humor in the conflict of Clyde’s big brother Buck (Claybourne Elder) and his God-fearing wife Blanche (Melissa van der Schyff). Her henpecking insistence that he swear off crime and stay away from no-good Clyde yields the show’s most amusing number in “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail,” sung by van der Schyff with a gorgeous Dolly Parton-esque warble, and given droll support by the women in Blanche’s hair salon.
Many individual scenes engage, but overall the show is stubbornly unexciting. Given that the outcome is no surprise – which is reconfirmed by opening with the protagonists being showered with bullets in their Ford convertible – the story needs danger and suspense. Those qualities are sure not fueled by Ted Hinton (Louis Hobson), a Dallas cop hankering after Bonnie, who makes a rather wet antagonist to the antiheroes.
While the theme remains sketchy, the creative team have endeavored to breathe contemporary relevance into the story by emphasizing the climate of hardship, economic struggle and institutional indifference that made Parker and Barrow into folk heroes, notably in the song that opens the second act, “Made in America.”
Designer Tobin Ost (who also did the sharp period costumes) has given the show a nifty unit set of slatted wooden backboards. That versatile structure economically suggests multiple locations while accommodating extensive projections and allowing lighting designer Michael Gilliam to create smoky filtered effects that evoke vintage Hollywood crime films. Director Jeff Calhoun marshals the action along with a firm hand, but spilling lots of ketchup during the crime spree doesn’t disguise the drama’s absence of vigor.
The leads, while a tad too wholesome to portray the Barrow gang, outshine their material. After playing sweet and demure in Anything Goes, Osnes shows a brassier side here and gets the show’s most romantic numbers in “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Jordan, recently in the pre-Broadway run of Disney’s Newsies, plays Clyde with a winning twinkle in his eye and a cocky presence that should land him roles in better vehicles. Elder strikes touching notes in Buck’s adoration of Clyde, and as doting, domineering Blanche, van der Schyff is delightful.
These gifted performers are given songs that dip into bluegrass or country, gospel or rock, not to mention that ubiquitous Wildhorn favorite, the blustery power ballad. But the composer and lyricist show little flair for marrying story with song. And while several of them are catchy, the numbers mostly remain derivative pseudo-pop, too often regurgitating the same ideas. That and the superficial book drain the blood from what should be a dynamic story of fugitive lovers on a date with death.
Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, Melissa van der Schiff, Claybourne Elder, Joe Hart, Louis Hobson, Kelsey Fowler, Mimi Bessette, Daniel Cooney, Talon Ackerman, Leslie Becker, Victor Hernandez, Garrett Long, Marissa McGowan, Alison Cimmet, Michael Lanning, Tad Wilson
Director/choreographer: Jeff Calhoun
Book: Ivan Menchell
Lyrics: Don Black
Music: Frank Wildhorn
Set and costume designer: Tobin Ost
Lighting designer: Michael Gilliam
Sound designer: John Shivers
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Fight director: Steve Rankin
Music supervision/arrangements/orchestrations: John McDaniel
Music director: Jason Howland
Presented by Kathleen Raitt, Jerry Frankel, Jeffrey Richards, Barry Satchwell Smith, Michael A. Jenkins, Howard Caplan, Bernie Abrams/Michael Speyer, Howard Kagan, Barry & Carole Kaye, Terry Schnuck, Nederlander Presentations, Corey Brunish/Brisha Trinchero, Alden Badway Podell/The Broadway Consortium, Patty Baker, Bazinet & Company, Uniteus Entertainment, Ken Mahoney, Jeremy Scott Blaustein.