Times is hard in Bonnie and Clyde. Some would say not so different from now. Climate shifting, turning the land into a dustbowl. Whole businesses destroyed. Banks going under. People out of work. They discover they’re going but they’re not going anywhere. They’re just going. Chased by the law or their own demons.
Bonnie and Clyde is a story about American dreams – the dream to drive fast cars across the country, to have your shot at fame, and to order up your own style of justice as in the wild west – the outlaw hero with his power of owning (and using) a gun. But it’s also about the dream of having a job that can feed your family, a home of your own without fear of foreclosure, of getting respect, and of being free and standing strong.
After two years of tryouts, Frank Wildhorn’s musical Bonnie and Clyde opened and closed on Broadway in 2011 after 33 performances. The piece still hangs rather infamously under a cloud. But based on the show’s themes, I wanted to check out Monumental Theater, a young company with its own big dreams.
Ivan Menchell crafted the book to give us the backstory of the characters and especially the relationship of Bonnie and Clyde. It makes for compelling characters and some terrific “interior” thinking and scenes, and maybe especially so recently when half the country is still trying to fathom politically what happened ‘out there.’
In the first number, Young Bonnie (Hailey Ibberson) and Young Clyde (Camryn Shegogue) sing about celluloid dreams and their heroes Clara Bow (hers) and Billy the Kid (his) after whom they want to pattern their lives. In “Picture Show” Ibberson delivers the yearning for fame of a restless and fragile dewy adolescent, and Shegogue nails the early makings of an outlier.
As their grown up counterparts, lead performers Rachel Barlaam and Russell Silber give us memorable portraits of Bonnie and Clyde. She outsizes him in voice and dreams, and you can feel in her a real full-figured woman from the heartland restless to bust out and find a better life. When she sings she transports us into believing she might just become “the it” girl, and we root for her. This “ravishing redhead” can turn vamp on in a song like “How about a Dance” then switch to tender dreamy girl in one moment and become a pouncing sparring partner the next.
Silber also channels something gritty and real about Clyde Barrow. His wiry body can shrink, making you think of a kid who could easily get picked on and disrespected (which could explain the psychological make-up of Clyde.) But he can also explode the way “The Boss” Springsteen could do and get way, way big, scooting across and owning the stage. There’s also something about his face, the way his mouth can twist to the side and his thin lips get hungry and mean where he reminds you of Sean Penn, a guy who played another killer in Dead Man Walking. It’s not so much his charm that wins Bonnie, but the sheer ferocity of his conviction.
It’s easy to believe the spark that is there between them. They are a match. They fight but they love too, and most of all they adore each other’s dreams. By the time they are singing together “Dyin’ Ain’t so Bad” they have me thoroughly convinced that their trade from “painting barns and swatting flies” was the right one for them.
Secondary characters are given clarity and conviction by strong performances throughout. Jana Bernard as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche stands out to me as a most original invention. Bernard gives voice and depth to the woman who wants more simple (and we’ll say honorable) dreams of a home and a loving husband. She stands by her man and puts her strength in the Lord. Though Bernard can deliver a hilarious double-take and that pursed-lip look as good as the next, to my mind she never stoops to deliver such cheaply. She always bases her choices in reality and with respect for the character she is playing.
Bonnie and Clyde
closes July 31, 2017
Details and tickets
Ben Stoll as brother Buck to Clyde certainly makes you feel for him in every beat, torn as he is between choices of disappointing the two people he loves. Jonathan M. Rizzardi as the preacher demonstrates he has a calling indeed. Morgan Scott may possess the makings of the most powerful vocal instrument on stage, and it is refreshing in a story that celebrates violence and an outlaw code, he so sympathetically portrays an honest man. But let’s face it, everyone in this ensemble can raise more than a little hell.
Having cheered so much all along, it may be useful to throw out a couple of warnings to these mostly young singers. Acknowledging the convention of country music’s vocal break and twang in composer Frank Wildhorn’s styled settings, in a house of only 50 seats it’s hard to see singers push for those upper notes. A few of the performers even allowed their tongues to pull back that nearly choked off the sound. I don’t care that contemporary musicals demand amplified sound, I’d like to see the young Monumental Theatre Company invest in healthy vocal production throughout.
Director Ryan Maxwell is otherwise most successful; he has found plenty of humor in the scenes – one of the strongest scenes conceptually and in the playing takes place in Blanche’s beauty shop where the women congregate to gossip and find companionship in a world where most of the men seemed to be ‘doing time.’ And lots of tenderness too. We get a sense of the hardship these people were going through and yet how much they tried to keep up appearances that all is normal. How American is that!
Maxwell’s use of silhouettes augments the numbers of characters but also effectively shifts the tone of scenes: romantic kisses and dances on one hand and on the other a predatory sexual attack by a prison mate.
Choreographer Melrose Pyne delivers a couple of rocking ensemble numbers, including “God’s Arms Are Always Open” as a revivalist congregation complete with full-immersion baptism (although truthfully I have never seen any white mid-western Baptists dance ‘so fine.’) “Made in America” could be on the Red State hit parade, if Pyne would choreograph the video.
Jessica Cancino designed a single set of wood paneling that served well to evoke a dilapidated barn with hanging tools and vestiges of an interior farmhouse with touches of dried flowers, a boxy dial-radio, a carved ukulele, and some old crockery. Cancino is inventive, using the light coming through the barn siding to do double duty revealing the orchestra, while a simple structure that looks like a split rail fence stands in for a car with a plank that gets lifted and anchored as a hood. Rob Siler’s lighting especially the side and back effects made strong dramatic statements.
Bonnie and Clyde never attains the musical level or power of Ragtime, another American epic that recently played in the area, but it too has something to teach us about our country – specifically here about that “other side” of America that we need to hear. For that we have Monumental Theatre to thank. It is no small task to produce a full-fledged musical, and the young company presents the show with polished professionalism and conviction.
It’s time we give Wildhorn’s musical a second chance.
Bonnie and Clyde. Book by Ivan Menchell. Music by Frank Wildhorn. Lyrics by Don Black. Directed by Ryan Maxwell. Music Direction by Paige Rammelkamp. Choreography by Melrose Pyne. Scenic Design by Jessica Cancino. Costume Design by Ethan Henry. Lighting Design by Rob Siler. Sound Design by Will Wacker with Associate Gordon Nimmo-Smith. With Rachel Barlaam, Jana Bernard, Ivan Carlo, Tiziano D’Affuso, Chris Daileader, Hailey Ibberson, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Morgan Scott, Camryn Shegogue, Russel Silber, Benjamin Stoll, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Jonathan M. Rizzardi, and Chani Wereley. Produced by Monumental Theatre Company. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission