Chicago Theatre Review
Outlaw Lovers on the Run
Bonnie and Clyde: the Musical – Kokandy Productions
Frank Wildhorn is the indefatigable and prolific writer of so many bland, uninspired musicals that this particular 2011 offering stands out, to some degree, in this new presentation. Among the 20 shows Wildhorn has composed since his 1990’s hit, “Jekyll & Hyde,” which has a strong cult following, he’s written such pop musicals as “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (a personal favorite), “The Civil War,” “Dracula, the Musical,” “Cyrano de Bergerac: the Musical,” “Wonderland” (loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s classic), last year’s “Mata Hari” and a yet-to-be-produced show called “Havana.” However, despite his Broadway flops and disappointments, this writer seems immune to criticism. Called “the everyman’s Sondheim” by one New York critic, Frank Wildhorn perseveres against all odds and never seems to give up.
In Kokandy Production’s respectable, yet toned-down interpretation we can see the glimmer of a pretty good show. It’s not great and there are a few problems with the piece, itself. But it’s certainly a bold move for a local, storefront theatre company to take a critically derided Broadway show, which only lasted four weeks in New York, and try to rework it into an appealing production for Chicago audiences. But that’s the Windy City way: our theatres brandish the moniker of Second City to mean a second chance for this kind of wayward plays.
Anyone of a certain age will likely recall Arthur Penn’s seminal 1967 film classic that elevated the ill-fated outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, to folk hero status, long after their actual glory days. The powerful movie starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, as the titular doomed Depression Era felons. Getting those haunting images of this near-perfect film out of your head may be a bit difficult.
For the stage, theatrical newcomer Ivan Menchell adapted their story, but it’s a little bland and unexciting. The biggest selling point is that he begins with the childhoods of a young Bonnie and Clyde, and keeps reintroducing them throughout the play to remind us of what drove these two to become fame-seeking outlaws. He attempts to tie the couple together, even before they meet, by their shared obsession with celebrity as a ticket out of the drudgery that was their everyday life in Texas. Bonnie longs to be the movie industry’s next “It Girl,” Clara Bow, while Clyde idolizes such folk hero criminals as Billy the Kid, Jessie James and Al Capone. Menchell hammers home the connection between crime and celebrity, trying, one suspects, to cash in on the popularity and the similar theme of Kander & Ebb’s “Chicago.” It soon becomes tiring.
Wildhorn’s musical score is probably the best element of this show. It’s a vast improvement over his past musicals. Forgoing his usual, formulaic big ballad approach to every song, this musical offers far more variety. Wildhorn calls it his “nontraditional score,” because he borrows so heavily from various musical styles of the early 1930’s, combining rockabilly, ragtime, blues, gospel and country & western. The composer then updates the sound, offering an interesting 80’s rock and roll beat to some of the songs. The show, however, feels unfortunately tune-heavy, featuring over 20 melodies. It’s almost like a song cycle or a through-sung show, with one tune closely following the next. The biggest problem with the music, however, is Don Black’s often prosaic lyrics that really do very little to further the plot or develop the characters.
But the real problem is the script. It plods along with one scene feeling much like the one before it. Despite Spencer Neiman’s often imaginative direction, particularly when he brings the action downstage, and John Cockerill’s tight musical guidance, including conducting his excellent, four-member backstage band, this musical is just simply unexciting. Robert S. Kuhn’s period costumes nicely help delineate each character, often allowing for some very quick changes. Michael J. Patrick’s sound design fills the theatre with gun shots and vintage radio broadcasts. Ashley Ann Woods has transformed the stage into a multitude of weathered wooden locales, nicely lit by Alexander Ridgers. But there’s little excitement, ironically, despite the gunfire and killing, to keep the audience’s interest.
That’s not to say that the talent involved is anything but top notch. This isn’t a weak actor on the stage. Desiree Gonzalez is spectacular as Bonnie. A welcome, recent transplant to Chicago, this actor’s voice thrills like few others and she has the requisite femininity and alluring smile that would drive any guy to rob banks, just for her. She sounds wonderful in such songs as “How ‘Bout a Dance” and, one of the show’s best numbers, “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.”
Ms Gonzalez is matched by talented Max DeTogne, a terrific young Chicago actor/singer who’s made a solid name for himself in recent years. With a voice that soars into the stratosphere, Max has played the title role in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the lead in “High Fidelity,” Che in Morton College’s recent production of “Evita,” and many other notable roles. As Clyde he’s a young man with a short fuse, but always with his eye on the prize: Bonnie. What he does, he does for her…and for his own personal fame. The pair beautifully blends in duets, such as “This World Will Remember Us,” “Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “What Was Good Enough for You.” Together they nicely portray Bonnie and Clyde, not simply as misunderstood kids whose dreams have been squelched; but as egomaniacs who, like so many of today’s young people, want to become stars.
These two leading actors are supported by several other talented cast members. Missy Wise sports an incredible voice and a saucy sense of comedy as Blanche, Clyde’s Bible-thumping sister-in-law. This young woman, who’s appeared in a variety of roles throughout the Chicago area, has a Dolly Parton twang that’s perfect for this show. She uses her considerable vocal talent to make songs like the comic “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail,” a duet with Bonnie entitled “You Love Who You Love” and the poignant “That’s What You Call a Dream” sound gorgeous and memorable. Handsome Cisco Lopez, who’s been seen around town in a number of Off-Loop productions, is Buck Barrow, Clyde’s older brother. He’s strong actor and a good match for Ms. Wise’s Blanche, both providing the show’s few welcome moments of comedy.
Other noteworthy performers include the always reliable Patrick Tierney as Ted, Bonnie’s on-again, off-again romantic interest, and a man of the law. The handsome Mr. Tierney lends his voice to several duets and company numbers, sadly reminding the audience that Bonnie chose Clyde over Ted with his melancholy “You Can Do Better Than Him.” Excellent vocalist Nathan Carroll struts his stuff as the Preacher, making the rafters ring with “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” Tia Pinson and Jeff Pierpont are standouts as Young Bonnie and Clyde, among other characters, and veteran actress Sarah Hayes brings honesty as Ella, Bonnie’s concerned, much put-upon mother.
For a Frank Wildhorn musical, this one is, surprisingly, a cut above the others. His musical score offers some catchy, melodious tunes, far more variety and often a few unexpected glimmers of brilliance. The performances by this talented cast and the musical accompaniment found in Kokandy’s production truly stand out and help to smooth over the triteness of Ivan Menchell’s mundane book. The playwright’s storytelling, much like his script for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” just doesn’t do this musical any favors; and Don Black’s lyrics, while serviceable, aren’t particularly clever or inventive. However, thanks to some creative direction by Spencer Neiman and outstanding musical support by John Cockerill, this story of two outlaw lovers on the run turns into an entertaining, yet tragic folk tale.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 27-October 15 by Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.kokandyproductions.com/bonnie-clyde/
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.