Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: Bonnie & Clyde

“Shocking” is the only word that can describe Bonnie & Clyde, the latest Broadway musical from much maligned composer Frank Wildhorn.  The shock doesn’t come from any surprise plot twist or provocative material, but rather from the fact that the same man behind infamously terrible shows like Wonderland and Dracula has miraculously produced a rather entertaining and welcome addition to the Broadway season.

As you may have guessed, the show concerns the famous titular outlaws, and chronicles their passionate romance from first meeting to final embrace.  The opening number does an excellent job of introducing young hooligan Clyde Barrow (played by Jeremy Jordan) and small-town waitress Bonnie Parker (Laura Osnes), simultaneously establishing their desires for fame and fortune while laying the groundwork for the tragic romance that will ultimately be their undoing.  Despite knowing the outcome (the show opens with the lovers dead, and the entire evening is essentially an extended flashback), you’ll find yourself caught up in their devotion to one another, from the fateful first meeting through prison breaks, crime sprees, and a government-led manhunt.

The production is blessed with a pair of extremely charismatic leads in Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes.  Jordan’s dashing good looks and golden voice make for an eminently charming Clyde, which he tempers with flashes of frightening anger and determination.  It’s a dynamic performance, believably charting one man’s descent from small-time criminal into murderous outlaw.  Laura Osnes’ Bonnie is equally winning, a perfect combination of schoolgirl innocence and fiery passion as she struggles to free herself from the confines of small-town life.  With Osnes’ radiant good looks and beautiful voice, you’ll find yourself as captivated by her as the nation was by Bonnie.

The show contrasts the couple’s proclamations of unyielding love with the more subdued but still heartfelt relationship between Clyde’s brother Buck and his wife, Blanche.  As played by Claybourne Elder, Buck is an affably endearing man struggling to better himself while continually being pulled in by the glamorous allure of his brother’s exploits.  Although the siblings’ duet “When I Drive” is one of the score’s weaker moments, the love and devotion between the pair is excellently conveyed through Elder and Jordan’s performances. 

As Blanche, Melissa Van Der Schyff provides the lone voice of reason among the central quartet.  Blanche has never cared for Clyde and his shenanigans, and it clearly pains her to see her husband making the same mistakes.  But rather than being an overbearing shrew, Blanche expresses her displeasure through sharp comic barbs, providing the some of the evening’s biggest laughs.  Although the character of Blanche is overwritten (she easily has as much stage time as either of the leads), Van Der Schyff is such a charming actress that she never wears out her welcome.

Overall, the show manages to avoid many of the mistakes made by past Wildhorn endeavors.  Although Bonnie & Clyde’s score still contains some of the powerhouse belting and overly dramatic key changes that are the composer’s hallmark, it doesn’t rely on them nearly as much as his other shows.  The folk-and-blues-influenced music does a wonderful job of establishing the show’s world while bridging the gap between pop and musical theatre.  The drama isn’t overwrought, and is leavened with a surprising yet welcome amount of comedy.

Most of the show’s problems stem from Ivan Menchell’s book.  Disturbingly light on subtlety, the book scenes are saved on more than one occasion by the various performers’ charms.  Menchell doesn’t spend quite enough time developing the initial connection between the two leads; Bonnie displays enough hesitation that it isn’t love-at-first-sight, but we never see what causes her the change her mind about Clyde.  The pace starts to drag during the police manhunt in the second act, and the show’s ending is a decidedly underwhelming finish to this larger than life tale.

But the good outweighs the bad, and Bonnie & Clyde proves to be the most pleasant surprise of the fall season.  A more than competent combination of comedy and drama aided by two immensely appealing central performances, the show effectively graduates Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes from rising talents to full-fledged stars.  It also proves that Frank Wildhorn really did have a good musical rattling around inside of him; he just needed to write some bad ones first.

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