Bonnie & Clyde to hit Sarasota stage with guns blazing

New musical to hit Sarasota stage with guns blazing

wtatangelo@bradenton.comNovember 7, 2010 

The real-life Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by Texas lawmen and died on a rural road in Louisiana. But the much-buzzed about “Bonnie & Clyde” musical could end up on Broadway, especially if local theatregoers embrace the show.

The original production based on the lives of the famed Depression-era bank robbers has been touted as Big Apple bound since before the first day of Sarasota rehearsals. Its creators rank among the most acclaimed talents in show business. Producers from New York and abroad have been invited to attend. Investors’ final decisions will be rooted in the performance — and audience reaction.

“Broadway producers have already invested a significant amount of money into this show,” said Asolo producing artistic director Michael Edwards at a recent press event. “How it goes here will determine whether it goes to Broadway.”

“Bonnie & Clyde” marks the start of the main-stage season at the Asolo Repertory Theatre with previews beginning Nov. 12 and an official opening on Nov. 19. It runs through Dec. 19.

The Asolo already has experience sending a production to Manhattan. In 2007, under Edwards’ guidance, “A Tale of Two Cities” had its world premiere in Sarasota, enjoying a sold-out run. It opened on Broadway the following year and earned three Drama Desk Award nominations, including one for James Barbour (as Sydney Carton) in the Outstanding Actor in a Musical category. If “Bonnie & Clyde” lands on the Great White Way, area stage enthusiasts will likely be rewarded with more high-caliber, pre-Broadway runs.

“I’m already hoping to do more stuff here in the future,” said the famed Frank Wildhorn while lounging in the Asolo green room last month.

In 1999, Wildhorn became the first American composer in more than 20 years to have three shows run simultaneously on Broadway. His “Jekyll & Hyde,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “The Civil War” each were box office hits that earned multiple Tony nominations.

Before making his name in New York, Wildhorn grew up in Broward County and played football for Hollywood Hills High School. His mother lives in Delray Beach. In 1991, Wildhorn’s Gothic musical “Svengali” premiered at the Alley Theatre in Houston and won the Alton Jones Foundation Award before moving to the Asolo. The cast included Chuck Wagner as Svengali and Linda Eder (Wildhorn’s then-future wife) as Trilby.

The composer returns to the region to fine-tune his “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Wonderland” musicals. The new Alice adventure premiered last year at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. It will return there for performances Jan. 4-16 before a scheduled spring run on Broadway.

“This is an amazing time for me,” Wildhorn said. “The fact that ‘Wonderland’ is going to Broadway and we have high hopes for ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ and the fact that they’re going to overlap — this will still be running when ‘Wonderland’ starts rehearsal in Tampa — that’s a pretty cool thing. You can’t plan that stuff. It’s wonderful that it’s happening and it’s great for my connection to this place.”

In the beginning

“Bonnie & Clyde” began as part of an album for Eder — Wildhorn’s ex-wife, close friend, harshest critic, muse and frequent collaborator. Wildhorn had conceived a series of song cycles about historical and literary couples for the lauded actress/singer. He would compose the music and collaborate with his favorite lyricists.

The album first began morphing into a major musical when Wildhorn contacted Songwriters Hall of Famer Don Black. The English lyricist has written numerous pop hits such as Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” Michael Jackson’s “Ben” and Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds are Forever,” as well as winning a Tony Award for “Sunset Boulevard.” Black chose “Bonnie & Clyde” immediately after seeing Wildhorn’s list.

“Ironically, the first demos were done by Linda, of course, and Michael Lanning, who’s in (“Bonnie & Clyde”),” Wildhorn said. “What happened was we fell in love with the subject and started doing more research and said, ‘Why are we stopping?’ That’s kind of where it really started.”

“Bonnie & Clyde” features a book by Ivan Menchell (“The Cemetery Club,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”), music by Wildhorn and lyrics by Black. Director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun’s credits include “Big River,” “Grease,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” and the national tour of “9 to 5: The Musical,” which recently played the Straz.

Despite sharing a title, “Bonnie & Clyde” is not a musical adaptation of recently deceased director Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 film, which starred Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker.

“This has nothing to do with the movie,” Menchell said. “It starts with Bonnie and Clyde at 10 years old.”

The musical’s book writer concentrated on fleshing out the characters beyond their killing sprees famously depicted, often in startling close-up, by Penn. Menchell researched the real-life criminals by reading the numerous accounts penned by those whose lives were directly affected by them.

“Anyone they aimed a gun at wrote a book,” he cracked, “unless they were killed.”

“Bonnie & Clyde” had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in November 2009. The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle honored it as Outstanding New Musical. The Los Angeles Times called Wildhorn’s score “undeniably impressive.” But the show presented here will be significantly different than the one staged in Southern California.

Seven of the 18 songs are previously unheard, including the freshly composed “Made in America.” There are alterations to the structure of the story. New scenes replace old ones. The creators also altered the tone of the play — set mostly during the Great Depression — to reflect the mood of our modern Great Recession.

“I’ve always loved America,” Black said over a cup of tea in an Asolo meeting room. “Coming from the East End of London, I was raised on those kind of movies and Gary Cooper films, whatever. And I loved that language. It just appealed to me. Americana. I love that small-town American literature. Anything to do with that kind of writing I like. And then (Wildhorn) sent me a couple of melodies and they were so evocative of the period, of the dust bowl thing. It wasn’t typical Frank Wildhorn. I would have never thought he wrote them. Which I think is a compliment. You’d think it was Woody Guthrie or somebody. It was really different.”

Discovering stars

In keeping with the realism of the non-traditional score that combines rockabilly, blues, gospel and period-appropriate pop, Calhoun cast actors who were close in age to the actual Bonnie and Clyde. This pretty much eliminated any “names” with the singing chops to play the title roles. “We’re bucking the trend of taking a star from TV,” Calhoun said. “We want to discover stars — even though the producers want an established star. The title is the star of the show. We’re convinced that’s the best way to go.”

During its San Diego run, 24-year-old Laura Osnes, best known for her roles in the Broadway revivals of “Grease” (as Sandy) and “South Pacific” (as Nellie Forbush) played Bonnie. Stark Sands, currently on Broadway as Tunny in “American Idiot,” portrayed Clyde. Osnes happily returns as Ms. Parker for the Sarasota and potential New York run.

“There’s a part of Bonnie I really can connect with,” she said after a recent rehearsal. “I love how she wanted to be a performer. I want to be a performer. She writes poetry. I enjoy writing poetry. Y’know? There are things we have in common. Obviously I’m not a murderer (laugh) but, yeah, it’s wonderful just to get to play someone who has the same life experiences as I do and in that many years.”

Jeremy Jordan, who played Tony in the Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” takes over as Clyde. He and Osnes spent a week together in Sarasota with the creatives, bonding before the rest of the cast, which largely consists of La Jolla members, arrived. The time allowed them to create the chemistry that must translate on stage in order for this production to be a success. Because, at its essence, “Bonnie & Clyde” is a tragic romance.

“I identify with his relationship with Bonnie,” Jordan said after rehearsing a particularly steamy scene with her. “And why that drives him to do everything he does. I think the main plot point of the story is they’re really madly in love and will do anything for each other. She’s going down with him because if he’s he dead then she’s dead, too. He feels the same way about her.”

Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at (941) 745-7057. Follow him on Twitter: @accentbradenton. His blog, Buzz Worthy, can be found at bradenton.com/blogs.

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