“Bonnie & Clyde” opened Friday at the Asolo Repertory Theatre with a bang -- actually quite a few deadly bangs -- and by night’s end proved worthy of all the buzz it has created.
Before rehearsals for the new musical began last month, the latest production by the famed Frank Wildhorn (music) and the legendary Don Black (lyrics) already ranked as the region’s must-see stage event of the season. After premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2009, the Asolo announced “Bonnie & Clyde” would have a Sarasota run before a planned Broadway production in 2011. Numerous revisions took place and more than about a third of the songs made their world premieres Friday.
Nearly every scene and music number worked to paint a fresh, poignant portrait of the iconic outlaw sweethearts.
Laura Osnes (Bonnie Parker) and Jeremy Jordan (Clyde Barrow) radiated star power. The chemistry between the two highly talented and equally attractive actors permeated the packed 500-seat theater. These two could easily be household names in the near future. They each have serious singing chops, sharp comedic timing, impressive dramatic skills and irrepressible smiles.
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In keeping with the serious nature of the subject matter, director Jeff Calhoun judiciously resists any superfluous dance sequences and gives the production a staging that’s at once modern and evocative of the dusty 1930s.
Tobin Ost greatly contributes with a charming slatted wooden set augmented by Aaron Rhyne’s exceptional use of actual photos, newspaper headlines and Michael Gilliam’s emotive lighting.
Ivan Menchell’s book eschews the famous film of the same name, instead relying on numerous nonfiction accounts of the Depression-era criminals. He deftly portrays the young couple initially as being obsessed with fame and then addicted to the thrill of having a smoldering romance while on the run for robbery and the murder of anyone who gets in their way. Menchell attributes Bonnie and Clyde’s amoral behavior to an utter lack of faith prompted by the misery the two witness while growing up in woeful West Dallas and, in Clyde’s case, prison rape sanctioned by a nefarious guard. At one point, after surveying her bleak surroundings, Bonnie proclaims “God is dead.”
Menchell also uses Bonnie and Clyde’s story as a meditation on the American dream. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, as witnessed by the criminal’s long-suffering parents and the grainy pictures of desperate men in soup lines. It’s a theme that hits home in light of America’s current recession and is summed up in the Act II opening ensemble music number “Made in America,” which features robust vocals by Michael Lanning (preacher).
There was nothing Menchell could have presented, though, that would’ve made the deadly duo heroes; and he smartly resists making such an attempt. But he does allow the audience to care about the misguided lovers who died when Bonnie was age 23 and Clyde 25. The pity comes via their brave acceptance of the violent death that surely awaits them. Wildhorn and Black wonderfully capture the sentiment in the stirring, strings-and-piano-laden torch song “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.”
“Dying ain’t so bad if you both go together,” Osnes sings. “Only when you’re left behind does it get sad.”
Wildhorn’s winningly eclectic score covers everything from country (“You Love Who You Love”) and gospel (“God’s Arms Are Always Open”) to vintage pop (“How ’Bout a Dance”) and proto-rock (“Raise a Little Hell”).
Black’s lyrics make the memorable melodies come alive with rich, timeless language that does a near-perfect job of serving the period piece.
Wildhorn, Black, Menchell and Calhoun joined the cast and mingled with attendees at the after party. Everyone seemed elated. And rightfully so.
My only suggestion would be to drop a couple of music numbers that slightly slow the pacing of the 2 1/2-hour production.
For instance, in the first act, Kevin Massey (as Ted, the cop in love with Bonnie) and Jordan deliver a strong performance of “You Can Do Better than Him,” but the song does little to further the plot or tell us anything about the two protagonists. Same goes for the second act musical number “The Devil,” beautifully sung by Mimi Bessette (Emma Parker).
On balance, though, “Bonnie & Clyde” has all the markings of a musical bound for success on the Great White Way and should be mandatory viewing for all local theater enthusiasts.
Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7057 and follow him on twitter @accentbradenton. Visit his blog, Buzz Worthy, at bradenton.com/blogs.