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Bonnie & Clyde
Music by Frank Wildhorn, Lyrics by Don Black
Book by Ivan Menchell
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy
New Line Theatre
October 2, 2014

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Matt Pentecost, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

A musical about infamous 1930’s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, with music composed by the controversial Frank Wildhorn, sounds like it could either be very intriguing or extremely disappointing. The fact that it was a notable flop on Broadway added to my curiosity, as did the fact that it’s being staged by New Line Theatre, which seems to make a habit of bringing lesser-known musicals out of obscurity and giving them compelling productions.  Bonnie and Clyde is New Line’s latest project, and with  its excellent cast and dynamic, colorful staging, it proves to be a surprisingly resounding success.

In a somewhat streamlined version of the real story, this show focuses on its namesake characters’ quest for notoriety and their surprising rise to folk-hero status in the midst of the Great Depression. As the story begins, both sing about their desire for fame in the song “Picture Show”. While Bonnie (Larissa White) has ambitions to be a movie star like silver screen “It Girl” Clara Bow, Clyde (Matt Pentecost) is a small-time criminal with dreams of becoming a notorious outlaw like Billy the Kid.  He and his older brother and frequent partner-in-crime Buck (Brendan Ochs) are in and out of jail, to the dismay of Buck’s devoted wife, Blanche (Sarah Porter), who wants her husband to give up his life of crime and pursue a more quiet, peaceful life with her. When Clyde, having escaped from jail, meets Bonnie, they quickly fall in love, and Bonnie eventually encourages Clyde in his lawless ambitions, as their crime spree becomes well-publicized and, oddly enough, even some of their victims regard them with a mixture of awe and admiration, as the authorities–including Bonnie’s would-be suitor, Deputy Sherriff Ted Hinton (Reynaldo Arceno)–become more and more determined to track them down and bring them to justice, dead or alive.

I know Wildhorn’s music has had a “love it or hate it” track record, although I hadn’t heard much of it before seeing this show, save for a few songs from Jekyll and Hyde and one song from The Scarlet Pimpernel, thanks to XM Radio’s Broadway channel, which repeats it frequently. I went into this musical not knowing much about the score, so I was determined to keep an open mind, and while I can’t speak for Wildhorn’s other works, this one is surprisingly impressive.  Several of the songs have a jazzy sound, as is fitting for a show set in the the 1930’s, and there’s a little bit of gospel as well, in the memorable church scene during the first act, with the glorious voice of Zachary Allen Farmer as the Preacher belting out “God’s Arms Are Always Open”.  There are memorable solos for Bonnie with “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dying Ain’t So Bad”, and Clyde with “Raise a Little Hell” and “Bonnie”, as well as a rousing duet for Clyde and Buck on “When I Drive”, and some good ballads and ensemble numbers.  The songs help create a believable Depression-era atmosphere and serve the story well, expertly played by New Line’s band, conducted by music director Jeffrey Richard Carter.

The script has an occasional tendency to oversimplify events and characters, although book writer Ivan Menchell has done a good job of giving the characters believable rhythms of speech, and the four main characters are well-defined. There’s also a good sense of pacing especially in the second act, with the action picking up as Bonnie and Clyde embark on their famous crime spree and the tension gradually builds, along with a very real sense of escalating horror and impending doom.  Anyone who knows the story of Bonnie and Clyde knows how it ends, with them ironically achieving the infamy they most crave even more so after their violent end.  The show is also somewhat of an examination of American culture in the 1930’s and what led to the lionization of these two stylish but increasingly brutal outlaws.

Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have assembled a first-rate cast, particularly in the four most prominent roles. As Clyde, Pentecost has the presence and charisma as well as that sense of audacious amorality as the unrepentant outlaw, Clyde. Ochs is an able counterpart in a charming, boyish characterization of Clyde’s conflicted but devoted brother, Buck.  Even more outstanding, though, are White and Porter, who both give stunningly affecting performances. Webster University student White is a real find in her New Line debut as Bonnie. Not only does she have a great voice, strong stage presence, and excellent chemistry with Pentecost; she also deftly navigates Bonnie’s evolution from wide-eyed neophyte to full-fledged partner in crime.  She’s a performer to watch.  As Blanche, Porter gives a richly nuanced portrayal of a church-going “good girl” who loves a “bad boy” and only wishes for a quiet, happy life with him, determined to encourage him to disassociate from his old ways and his dangerous brother. She serves as a stark contrast to  Bonnie, who supports the unapologetically destructive Clyde with worshipful devotion.  The two share a poignant, plaintively sung duet on “You Love Who You Love”. Porter also has great chemistry with Ochs, with great moments in the upbeat “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” and the reflective “Now That’s What You Call a Dream”.  There are also strong performances from Farmer as the Preacher, Arceno as the determined Ted, as well as Alison Helmer as Bonnie’s mother and Kimi Short and Joel Hackbarth as Clyde and Buck’s parents.  The ensemble is strong, as well, showing off the exceptional singing that New Line is known for.

The 1930’s are ably brought to life on stage through Rob Lippert’s meticulously detailed set with nice touches like an authentic-looking Ford car and a realistic vintage gas pump. Lippert’s lighting is also strikingly evocative, and costume designers Marcy Wiegert and Porter have done an excellent job recreating the period, with  a variety of outfits from high-end suits and dresses to overalls and work clothes that are all distinctly in-period. All of the technical aspects work together to provide a very sharp, striking representation of the period that’s in-keeping the with jazz-inflected score.

I’ve come to expect excellence from New Line, and my expectations have been met and exceeded by this impressive and memorable production.  I like being surprised by great performances, and there are quite a few in this show. Bonnie & Clyde is a show that’s compelling even as it’s unsettling and not a little disturbing, as two charismatic but unashamedly corrupt people rise to prominence quickly and then, even more quickly, fall.  It’s a truly memorable production.

Larissa White, Sarah Porter Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Larissa White, Sarah Porter
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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