December 28, 2011

"Bonnie & Clyde" Got Gunned Down Too Early

Let’s be honest: what I think about Bonnie & Clyde isn’t going to matter one bit because the show has already posted its closing notice and will be moving out of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre before the end of this year, which, of course, is just three days away.

Still, I can’t help throwing in my two cents because (1) I’ve been a sucker for the Bonnie and Clyde story ever since I saw Warren Beatty’s 1967 movie and (2) I don’t think this musical version is half as bad as nearly all the big critics have been braying that it is. In fact, I enjoyed the show and a lot more than some others that have recently drawn raves. And I suspect a lot of people might like it too if they were given the chance to see it.

The reason they won’t be is Frank Wildhorn.  He’s the show’s composer and the guy that the Broadway snoberati love to hate. Wildhorn has a fondness for melodramatic stories, a way with big power ballads and a knack for getting producers to back his shows.  He’s had six on Broadway since his biggest hit, Jekyll & Hyde (1,543 performances) open in 1997 and the critics have hated every one of them (click here to read a NYTimes story about that). 

I’m no Wildhorn fan myself. I wasn’t crazy about Jekyll & Hyde, was only mildly amused by The Scarlet Pimpernel (which actually closed down for revisions twice in attempts to make itself more popular) and thought Wonderland, which opened last spring and overstayed its welcome at just 33 performances, was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen (click here to read my review). 

But just cause you don’t like what someone has done in the past doesn’t mean that you should automatically dismiss what he comes up with next.  And Wildhorn seems to have really tried to please this time out. 

Instead of choosing a Classic Comics approach, he’s taken an edgier route and built his musical around the Depression-era gangster couple who gunned down a dozen men before they themselves where ambushed and killed.

His collaborator, first-time book writer Ivan Menchell, has varied the tale the movie told and attempts to give his story contemporary resonance by emphasizing how an obsession with celebrity and a frustration with poverty caused by heartless banks led the couple astray. 

And Wildhorn has teamed up with the Tony-winning lyricist Don Black (click here to read a Q&A with him). Black's lyrics this time out could probably stand one more run through the word processor and Wildhorn's music is still more pop than traditional Broadway but it’s catchy.   

There’s a country twang to the Bonnie & Clyde score that nicely captures the show’s Dust Bowl-era setting. And the resulting songs aren’t bad at all.  Which you’ll be able to judge for yourself since a cast album is being recorded next week.

But the smartest move Wildhorn made was hooking up with director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun,  an up-from-the-ranks Broadway vet who has put together a top-flight production that you won't be able to see unless you hurry (click here to read a piece about how he did it).   

Calhoun gets outstanding support from Tobin Ost, who designed the simple but effective set and the period costumes; and Aaron Rhyne whose video productions make affecting use of iconic images by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and other Depression-era photographers.

And even the most negative naysayers have praised the casting of Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan as the title characters. This is the fourth in a string of performances Osnes has given since 2007 that almost make you forget she got her start by winning the reality TV show “Grease: You’re The One That I Want" (click here to read a profile of her).    

For his part, Jordan justifies all the buzz about his performance in the recent Paper Mill Playhouse production of Newsies. So much so that I can't help wondering if an eagerness to get him into that more family-friendly show, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in March, may have contributed to the premature death of this one. 
Yet as terrific as Jordan and Osnes are—sexy, charming, blessed with great voices—the supporting players are just as good.  Claybourne Elder gives a goofy sweetness to Clyde’s brother Buck that is almost the complete opposite from his equally effective turn as a sullen male hustler in One Arm, the Tennessee Williams drama that had a brief run in June (click here to read my review of that).

And Melissa van der Schyff virtually steals the show as Buck’s wife Blanche, not least because she sings the hell out of every song she’s given.  If she isn’t on the award ballots next spring, I’m writing her in. 

But since there are only four performances left, you’re unlikely to see any of this. I do hear, however, that another musical about Bonnie and Clyde is in the works.  Here’s hoping that it’s at least as good and won’t be gunned down as quickly.

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