Director Jeff Calhoun wants to make one thing very clear: the new musical version of Bonnie & Clyde shares nothing with Arthur Penn’s film save for its titular characters. Apparently it’s the only thing anyone wants to talk about, which is a pity because the tuner has more interesting talking points to offer.
The Calhoun-helmed, Frank Wildhorn-composed musical has earned a healthy audience throughout its brief run, which ended December 30th amid lukewarm reviews. A Wildhorn musical will always have a tough time on Broadway: few of his shows have achieved the cult following of Jekyll and Hyde, the standard-bearer for so-bad-it’s-good camp in the Wildhorn oeuvre. And when they’re not campy fun, they’re labeled self-serious, bland, or overblown. Bonnie & Clyde is occasionally all of these things. But in between the familiar pop-rock leanings and the blow-your-lungs-out ballads, there’s a pretty enjoyable, if slightly incongruous show.
Wildhorn’s score twists satisfying tinges of ragtime, blues, gospel, and rockabilly into tunes like the jangly “This World Will Remember Us” and “Now That’s What I Call A Dream” (which may be the best-crafted song in the show). Part of it is that this music doesn’t spend all its time mustering enough wind to blow dust into the rear mezzanine. And in its quiet moments, it’s an uncharacteristically understated portrait of a time and a place from Wildhorn. Yes, there’s a fair amount of filler (and some occasionally lacking lyrics by Don Black), but this might be one of his better scores.
Calhoun attempts similar evocation, dropping the show into Tobin Ost’s multi-leveled apple box of a set. His frustration with movie-obsessed reporters is understandable. The cinemazation of Broadway has made onstage movie musicals all too commonplace, so naturally, a musical sharing its title with a well-known film must be a one-to-one adaptation. Right? Not quite. The communication breakdown is due to the staging. Speaking broadly, today’s audiences are versed in the vocabulary of film, and some project those expectations of realism onto their theater.
So when Calhoun, clearly a very visual director, employs split-screens, jump cuts, slow fades, and montages, it satisfies that filmic craving. He even goes full Tarantino for a brief, brutal moment. Does it work? Not always. Calhoun and Ost employ projections of the pair, locales, and events that threaten to upstage the actors. He operates on a large scale, painting the action with large swaths that are out of sync with a score that’s trying not to pull focus. It gives the show a push and pull, yes, but not of the dramatic variety. But he’s consistent, and Calhoun keeps it moving with enough clip to move a whole lot of backstory.
Bonnie & Clyde is the sort of show that is indebted to its cast. For it is almost entirely due to the efforts of Laura Osnes, Jeremy Jordan, Claybourne Elder, and Melissa van der Schyff that it manages to eke out a consistent pulse. Osnes and Jordan are saddled with the task of making two egomaniacal bank robbers likable, and they do the best they can. Where they really succeed is in the charisma department.
Laura Osnes, a dependably lovely ingenue with a bell-clear belt, tries to bring some self-awareness to her girlishly-written character. Her Bonnie finds an ideal sparring partner in Jeremy Jordan. His Clyde is a smoldering sociopath, and Jordan puts his material to work with good, old-fashioned star power. Claybourne Elder makes a simple, straight-forward Buck Barrow. Buck doesn’t dwell, he just does, and often under the influence of others. His Blanche, Ms. van der Schyff (whose voice suits the material beautifully) gives a quiet, solid performance.
Ultimately, Bonnie & Clyde suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. First it’s a dark romance. And then it’s an attempt to heap backstory onto mythical figures. Then it’s a hip, technologically-savvy production. And then, in its greatest play for relevance, it becomes a comment on the effects of debilitating economic woes. It’s Dirty Sexy Depression. Each niche waits its turn to make an appearance, but they’re filtered through such a polished, multimedia-conscious lens that, well, it doesn’t quite ring true. Bonnie & Clyde looks forward as it looks back, and in the effort to please, its potential gets caught in the crossfire.