Confession time: I’ve never seen Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Despite the egregious historical pop culture black hole this puts me in (I can already hear the film buffs sharpening their appalled missives at me), you have to have lived under a rock not to be at least somewhat aware of the film’s legacy. Starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, this telling of Bonnie and Clyde was not only considered an iconic film for all the old Hollywood taboos it broke in the areas of violence and sex on film, it was the vehicle that cemented the legend of the bank-robbing duo firmly into the American playbook.
It’s probably safe to say that the team behind the 2009 musical version of Bonnie & Clyde, Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics) and Ivan Menchell (book), had seen the movie and were quite aware of the power it held for the American public. In other words, in adapting the folkloric story for the stage and setting it to music, they had a lot to live up to.
Spoiler alert – it ends badly for Bonnie and Clyde. But you already knew that.
We’re not here to be surprised when the rain of police bullets comes down on the bank-robbing pair. Nor are we shocked to learn that the partners in crime and in love killed several police officers and civilians during their Depression-era exploits. Hell, as Texans, it’s not even news to us that the infamous duo hails from the West Dallas area. What we are here to see is if the guilty pleasure, the wrong-side-of-the-law excitement and the sex appeal that drew our attention to the pair in the first place survive when plunked onstage and given the old song-and-dance treatment.
Well, song treatment anyway. Bonnie and Clyde is no kick-up-your-heels, showstopping dance production. Choreographer Dana Lewis does give us a few satisfyingly upbeat church dance numbers, but apart from those moments, the only real dancing we see happens in some celebratory private waltz-like moves late in the second act between Bonnie, Clyde, Clyde’s outlaw brother Buck and his wife, Blanche, after the men have pulled off yet another successful bank robbery. But first we’re shown how they got to that point.
As the musical opens, we meet the child versions of the pair. In the opening number, "This World Will Remember Me," Young Bonnie (the lovely-voiced Ella Ducharme) daydreams about being a famous movie star in the mold of Clara Bow, while Young Clyde (a plucky Scott Fonseka) idolizes Billy the Kid and has already begun a life of crime. Starting with small stuff like stealing a bike, Clyde swears that he will do anything not to end up penniless and helpless like his folks. As motivation for the pair’s future exploits, those things may be a little thin, but they work well enough.
What doesn’t work is that once the adult versions of our leads come onstage (the superlative Kathryn Porterfield and Robert Hager – more on them later), the child versions never leave. Instead, like creepy little Mini-Me mute shadow puppets, the kid versions skulk about the stage, presumably watching over their adult selves as they meet, fall in love, commit crimes, go to jail, break out of jail, try to maintain close ties with their parents and eventually meet their doom. Like pesky fruit flies you want to shoo away, there the kids were, serving no purpose at all except to distract. Which is a shame since there are things worth paying attention to in this lively production. And with the sexual chemistry on offer in this show, there’s a lot we couldn’t ignore even if we wanted to.
From the minute Hager’s charismatic, swagger-filled but antsy Clyde meets Porterfield’s perfect mix of sultry but sweet, law-abiding Bonnie, the pheromone fireworks explode and our pulses instantly quicken from their attraction. It’s the kind of magical heat onstage that so many shows strive to attain but don’t often achieve. We see every time Clyde draws Bonnie in for a snog, a move usually tied up with an effort to sway her over to his criminal ways. Bonnie may be the one who eventually breaks Clyde out of jail and she may carry a gun in her stockings, but at heart she’s a gal who wants a life of crimeless fame. She may love having her poems detailing their famous exploits published in the paper, but it’s Clyde who’s the real thug in this version and it’s his bad-boy side that drives the sexual chemistry bus. Kudos to directors Bruce Lumpkin and Marley Wisnoski for allowing Hagen to play a Clyde who's not just the ultimate swoon-worthy antihero but also a character who shows twitches of frayed nerves and disturbing anger under his charming facade. It’s a humanizing factor that in turn makes him even more attractive in Bonnie’s and our eyes.
Yet while the sexuality of the story may be dialed up to 11, the excitement of the thug on the run feels a little like a limp shag. Yes, we see Clyde rob a few banks, we even see him kill a few folks along the way, but never do we really feel the violence of the deeds. Nor do we ever feel anxious as the police get closer and closer to catching the pair.
Maybe that's due partly to Ryan McGettigan’s drab two-story barn-like set that serves as the show’s only backdrop. While the distressed look onstage certainly speaks to Bonnie and Clyde’s poor beginnings and the 1930s’ Depression economy, the shabby, brown-on-brown-on brown treatment remains dull even when the story isn’t. Most likely, though, it’s the relatively bland lyrical aspect of the show that numbs the tension. After all, it’s hard to get caught up in any fierceness when we're constantly sidetracked by tedious songs such as "When I Drive," a dude-bonding duet between Clyde and his lesser criminal brother Buck (Drew Starlin).
When I drive, when I drive, I'm in love, I'm alive
And I forget about everything I hate
When I drive, when I drive
For the most part, Wildhorn’s serviceable music, which draws heavily on country with touches of gospel and rock, and the casts’ strong voices carry us through what would otherwise be lyrically cringe-worthy songs. In one of the show's strongest duets, "You Love Who You Love," Bonnie and Clyde’s sister-in-law, Blanche (Courtney Markowitz), lament that while their men are no good, they're stuck on them anyhow.
Yes you love who you love
Common sense may say it’s wrong
There's a part of him you know is wild
Maybe that's what made you love him all along.
Here, as in other cases, it’s thanks to the power of the performers’ voices (special mention to Porterfield, whose voice steals this number as it does throughout the show) that lyrics like this don’t make us snicker.
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Sure, the songs are lacking in the lyric department and the music itself sounds overly derivative in places (I was sure I heard chords of Grease’s Hopelessly Devoted to You in places, among other familiar musical numbers), and yes, the suspenseful brutishness of the story doesn’t translate well. But bless their little criminal souls, this Bonnie and Clyde pull it off with a great deal of entertainment value.
These two were among the original reality TV (or newspaper, in their case) celebrities. Every move they made was chronicled, and the public both feared and loved them for their dastardly deeds. While this production may not adequately illustrate the heightened excitement surrounding what Bonnie and Clyde did, it certainly gets the why-we-loved-them part down perfectly thanks to the outstanding performances of Hagen and Porterfield.
Outstanding and hot, to be more specific. In the end, it’s the sex that captivates us in this production. Okay, there’s no sex in the show per se. But with the heat between this Bonnie and Clyde, there may as well be. This is the charisma we want from our criminal coupling, and hallelujah hands in the air that they got it and then some. Crime may not pay for these two and the show may not be their best vehicle, but damn if they don’t sizzle their way into our hearts in spite of all that.
Bonnie & Clyde continues through October 11 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $29-$49.