Musical Murder Most Foul
No one can accuse Bonnie & Clyde of not having a slam-bang opening. A barrage of rifle shots rings out as the two killers sit in the front seat of their car. These criminals aren’t just being killed; they’re being exterminated.
Actually, the actors portraying Bonnie Parker (Laura Osnes) and Clyde Barrow (Jeremy Jordan) aren’t in the car. Dummies are. Of course one could effectively argue that the actual Bonnie and Clyde were dummies to adopt the lifestyle -- and deathstyle -- that they did. Perhaps the dummies are meant to be symbols.
Nah. Bonnie & Clyde isn’t that complicated a show. While watching it -- which you can only do until the end of the month -- you may think, “Well, Assassins was about killers, too, so why can’t there be another musical about two others?”
Ah, but there are some profound differences between the Sondheim-Weidman musical and Bonnie & Clyde. You know the first three: the book, music and lyrics are better in the earlier work.
But there’s more to it than that. For the most part, the assassins that Sondheim and Weidman chose to dramatize were nobler in spirit than Bonnie and Clyde. They saw themselves as civic-minded people who thought they were doing a good thing for their country. Granted, the way they went about it was wrong, and, true, they all might have been mentally ill. But in their own strange way, they meant well. We might even assume that if each had escaped after killing the one person he’d targeted, he might never have had the urge to kill again.
Bonnie and Clyde, on the other hand, were simply out for fame, fortune and themselves. Early on, Clyde tells Bonnie that if he pulls three jobs a year, he can live well and wouldn’t need to work for the remaining months. How both coo with delight when they see their names in the papers. Are these people for whom we can root? Meyer Rothschild wanted to be rich, too, but he had a bigger goal in his eponymous musical: to gain power so that oppressed Austrian Jews could become treated as first-class citizens. Rothschild’s desire to acquire money served a greater purpose.
Sweeney Todd wanted revenge of someone who wronged him. That’s very different from the random killings that Bonnie and Clyde do. True, Sweeney became a mass murderer, but only after the person on whom he wanted revenge slipped through his fingers. He is then shown to snap. But we’re supposed to think that Bonnie and Clyde are cool.
They once were, in 1967 when they took the nation by surprise in the landmark film. That few knew who they were then helped. Now we all know their names, and we’ve had decades to reflect on the people they really were. That doesn’t make them ideal for musicalization.
The musical might have been better if it stressed an aspect it merely touches upon in the first song. Bonnie wants to be the next Clara “The It Girl” Bow; Clyde wants to be like Billy the Kid – someone he’s seen represented in movies, too. If bookwriter Ivan Menchell, composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black set out to write how we must be careful with what art we show kids – for it may influence them in the wrong way – the writers might have had something.
But instead of showing the dangers of glamorizing criminals, the collaborators want us to feel that because Clyde was raped in prison, we can pardon his lifelong anti-social behavior. Two wrongs don’t make a right in musicals any more than they do in life. So while a line Menchell gives Clyde is a terrific one – “Everybody’s got dreams; I got plans” – we wish that his plans were loftier.
So does Blanche Barrow, whose husband Buck has been unduly influenced by his wayward brother. What a look of sadness she gives her husband when he shows up at her door after a jailbreak that Clyde instigated. Blanche, in a solid performance by Melissa Van Der Schyff, loves her husband and wants him to serve his time so that they can then resume their lives as law-abiding citizens.
She’s working hard at a beauty parlor, and when Buck (the able Claybourne Elder) shows up there, three women are under the dryers. What’s odd is that they seem not at all unnerved that an escaped criminal is in their midst. In one of the show’s few surprises, we learn that the ladies have husbands who are or have been incarcerated, so they’re inured to the presence of criminals.
Bonnie’s mother (an excellent Mimi Bessette) is wary when her daughter brings home Clyde. Menchell, however, smartly has him win her over a little by playing the ukulele – because her late husband played, too. Such sentiments do matter to some people.
Bonnie & Clyde raises a big question that, if it could have answered, might have made it a legitimately great musical: why is a good woman attracted to a bad man? Bonnie has her chance with Officer Ted Hinton (a solid Louis Hobson), but he just isn’t exciting. Yes, Clyde’s “exciting” -- if breaking the law is your idea of exciting. As Blanche says in another good Menchell line, “That man puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.’” He even hits Bonnie. That she slugs him right back and he doesn’t hit her again doesn’t make an audience like him.
Menchell occasionally resorts to lazy bookwriting. One scene opens with the line, “Good luck with the hearing tomorrow” – all the better to set up exposition, m’dear. Menchell also establishes at the top of the show that Clyde and Buck’s parents work hard and can’t make ends meet, making their sons see that playing by the rules gets you nowhere – and that motivates them to crime. But Menchell never makes anything of the fact that a sign later tells us that Mr. Barrow has started his own company and seems to be making a go of it. Shouldn’t the Barrow boys reassess how they’ve approached matters, given that a straight and narrow path has set their father on the road to success? Instead, it’s “What was good enough for you, pa, wasn’t good enough for me.”
Just as lazy is Black’s having Clyde sing, “I’ll be as known as Chicago’s Al Capone.” As opposed to Schenectady’s Al Capone? With a little extra effort, Black could have found three syllables that would have been more apt. The lyricist also has Clyde grouse in song that “All I did was rob a few stores.” Even if that were “all,” it’s not as negligible as Clyde thinks – and, for that matter, it’s not “all” he did. Later he’ll say “It ain’t my fault” that he shot a cop.
Wildhorn and Black miss some song possibilities. One is when the Barrows state, “How is a man supposed to get a job and keep it?” Another is when Bonnie states, but doesn’t sing, about being known as “The Ravishing Redhead.” During a scene where Clyde is in jail and Bonnie visits, she presses her face between the bars to kiss him. What’s it like to kiss a man when two heavy and strong steel bars are pressing against her face and preventing her from getting closer? No, such a song would never be confused with “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” but the situation would have been more fascinating if musicalized.
But Wildhorn and Black are more interested in having Bonnie sing a line such as, “I never felt like this before.” And for her eleven o’clocker, Wildhorn gives Bonnie one of his famous torchy ballads that keeps accelerating and getting louder until he’s close to the finish line -- when he abruptly stops it dead. He then makes the piano all tinkly before a soft ride-out. Nobody likes sex when it turns into coitus interruptus; few probably like their songs to encounter it, too.
Was anyone, including director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, paying attention? One song ends with both our anti-heroes singing the words “Bonnie and Clyde” – acknowledging for the first time that they’re an actual team. And yet for the next two scenes, they argue about which of them should get top billing. If they must have that argument, it should come before they sing that they’re “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Bonnie says the reason she chose that billing is because many words rhyme with “Clyde,” but none with “Bonnie.” And while this isn’t a show where anyone would say, “Hey, nonny, nonny,” Bonnie could probably make something out of Connie, Donnie and Ronnie.
Nothing wrong with the performances. Both Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan are committed and game to play this musical as if it were great art. But Osnes, who traded in one 1934 musical (Anything Goes) for another set in that year, was better off before. Jordan is now in his second consecutive musical where he comes into someone else’s domain and puts his foot on a piece of furniture. The first time was in Newsies, which he’ll now presumably do again.
Everyone had been saying for weeks that the Disney brass wasn’t bringing in Newsies until later in the season because it wanted to wait for Bonnie & Clyde to close so it could have Jordan. Broadway wags were also predicting that Bonnie & Clyde would get the most poisonous reviews of the season. Actually, it avoided that distinction, which now belongs to On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. We’ll tackle that one next Friday.
— Peter Filichia