Bonnie & Clyde’ is Better at Love, than Crime
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
More than smoldering guns, it’s the criminal attraction between Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan that is holding audiences captive. Playing the titular lovers in the new musical “Bonnie & Clyde” the two actors ignite each other. Osnes, who appeared on Broadway most recently as Hope in “Anything Goes,” made her Broadway debut in the revival of “Grease,” a role she won through a reality television competition. Now, as the gangster’s moll, (and Clara Bow wannabe), Osnes tears away at the straight-laced charm which characterized her earlier Broadway roles. Finally, her satiny singing voice feels easy and consistent.
Still, the surprising performance here is Jeremy Jordan’s. Intensely focused and muscular in his portrayal of the heartless killer, Jordan’s Clyde instantly becomes the magnet for Osnes’s hungry, attention starved waitress in a dusty Depression era town in Texas. With more than just a devilish streak, Clyde mines a collective sense of longing stirred by deprivation.
Ivan Menchell’s story opens with scenes of the two as children. Portrayed as a rifle slinging bad boy, Clyde (Talon Ackerman) gets hauled off to jail at 14. Kelsey Fowler’s Young Bonnie, on the other hand, is the devoted child and ideal student who dreams only of being in the movies. But when we first meet her as an adult she’s stuck in small town life, working the counter at a 25-cent diner. Yes, the psychological perspective on what drove the two to crime is simplistic. But this is a musical after all.
Composer Frank Wildhorn creates a throaty jazzy theme for Clyde, and Don Black’s lyrical refrain about living like the “It Girl” Clara Bow, speaks to Bonnie’s uncanny attraction to stardom and danger. While the lyrics are not at all memorable, the score offers a fresh take on country western, gospel and contemporary pop in a clear departure from Charles Strouse’s bluegrass score for the 1967 music. Wildhorn, whose recent “Wonderland” took a beating on Broadway, makes a quick come back with some lovely melodies and his characteristic power ballads.
Unfortunately, there are obvious shortcomings to the book. While the supporting characters facilitate the story, they don’t offer any depth. Clyde’s brother Buck, for instance (Claybourne Elder), is simply a weak man who is divided between Clyde’s thirst for life, and his wife’s righteous sense of purpose. Melissa Van Der Schyff gives a resourceful performance, turning from honey to vinegar as the overlooked wife who finds solace in religion until she too gets sucked into a life of crime. As the Barrow boys’ mother, Leslie Becker is a meek and powerless character who also appears as a neurotic and zealous church-going gospel singer. Later in Act II she reemerges as the Governor who takes a hard stand on crime.
Meanwhile, Tobin Ost’s sets, using barn style walls that enclose the stage give the production a cramped feeling, only emphasizing the fact that the musical is limited in scope. Aaron Rhyne’s multimedia projections, which propel the car chase scenes, seem more cartoon-like than dramatic.
Directed by Jeff Calhoun, “Bonnie & Clyde” doesn’t deliver the kind of shock value audiences can recall from Arthur Penn’s movie. In its day, it was an innovation in filmmaking on par with “Pulp Fiction” in the ‘90s. But the musical on Broadway merely reinvents the status quo of musical theater. Unlike the story it tells of notorious criminals whose fight for survival captured the spirit of their times, this production lacks just that, a sense of risk and intrigue. Nonetheless, the onstage chemistry between Osnes and Jordan makes love among the economic ruins of rural America look tragically familiar.
“Bonnie & Clyde” is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. For the holiday performance schedule and ticket information, go to Ticketmaster.com, call 212-239-6222 or visit the box office.
Photos: Nathan Johnson