Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow hungered for fame, and they got it. But the pair had to rob banks, commit murders and die in a hail of bullets to achieve their version of the American dream during the Depression. Their stars have never faded, chronicled in many books and an iconic movie.
"This world will remember us," they sing in Bonnie & Clyde, a new musical by Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics) and Ivan Menchell (book), seen Tuesday at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. It is mostly enthralling, thanks in large part to a star-making performance by Laura Osnes as the celebrity-besotted Bonnie, who dreamt of being an "it girl" like her idol, silent film sex symbol Clara Bow.
Osnes casts a ravishing spell as the femme fatale of the Dust Bowl. Her portrayal of desperate ambition is, by turns, girlishly charming, glamorously sexual and chilling, and she brings a great sense of style to Wildhorn's music. One of the most powerful numbers in the show, Bonnie's fatalistic Dyin' Ain't So Bad, especially benefits from the taut emotional restraint of her singing.
She is well matched by Jeremy Jordan, who plays Clyde as an elegant psychopath, vowing to overcome his impoverished childhood (his family lived in a tent under a viaduct) and become somebody. "What was good enough for you, Pa, ain't good enough for me," he says to his father, a failed cotton farmer who operates a filling station.
The musical also features fine performances by Michael Lanning as a preacher in God's Arms Are Always Open, a motif running through the staging, and Melissa Van Der Schyff, making like Loretta Lynn as a country-fried Blanche Barrow, Clyde's religious sister-in-law. Wayne Duvall is terrific as good ol' boy Sheriff Schmid. As cop Ted Hinton, Clyde's rival, Kevin Massey tries to persuade Bonnie that You Can Do Better Than Him. Mimi Bessette, as Bonnie's mom, sang persistently flat Tuesday in her Act 2 number, The Devil.
Bonnie & Clyde premiered last year at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, and a key change made for the Asolo production, according to a playbill note by Menchell, was to highlight the dire conditions of the 1930s to resonate more strongly with today's economic woes. "Free coffee & doughnuts for the unemployed," reads a sign in the Dallas diner where Bonnie was a waitress.
Menchell's book covers a lot of ground, from Bonnie and Clyde as children in 1920 to their death in 1934. He astutely delves into their relationship, but the production is hobbled by slavish fidelity to the historical record. This is a musical, after all, and it should transform its material into something transcendent. In a change from La Jolla, the cast has roles for a young Bonnie (Kelsey Fowler) and young Clyde (Zach Rand), and their presence leads to some sentimentality about the roots of crime. Clyde's dark, twisted aria to killing, I'm Ready, after he is sexually abused in prison, is closer to the mark in plumbing his motivation.
It's interesting to compare Wildhorn's music for Bonnie & Clyde with that of Wonderland, his musical that premiered last year at Tampa's Straz Center and is bound for Broadway in 2011. Bonnie & Clyde doesn't have the flashy showstoppers of his Alice in Wonderland extravaganza, but the songs are more deftly incorporated into the crime saga.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun, Bonnie & Clyde is a pleasure to watch in the Asolo's gem of a theater. Fittingly, for the twosome's bloody exploits, there is no choreography credited. Tobin Ost (set and costume design) makes good use of rustic plank scenery and stylish outfits for Bonnie. Aaron Rhyne designed the elaborate projections of mug shots and media. The band (guitar, violin, bass, percussion) was conducted by pianist Steven Landau in an unfortunately muddy sound mix. The effects include much deafening gunfire.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.