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'Bonnie & Clyde' has murderous leads, killer songs

Bonnie and Clyde became famous when they teamed up, so it's somewhat appropriate that the new Broadway musical based on their story has brought together two great couples, albeit with less actual bloodshed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bonnie and Clyde became famous when they teamed up, so it's somewhat appropriate that the new Broadway musical based on their story has brought together two great couples, albeit with less actual bloodshed.

Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan, two of theater's rising stars, play the bank-robbing duo with sexy onstage chemistry and strong voices. The other couple is behind the scenes: Frank Wildhorn and Don Black, the composer and lyricist, who have written some sumptuous songs.

These dynamic duos enliven "Bonnie & Clyde," a relatively straightforward biographical musical with some nice creative touches that opened Thursday under the direction of Jeff Calhoun at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

This retelling of the Great Depression-era folk tale about two star-crossed lovers teases out the twin themes of their dangerous lust and their lust for fame. Bonnie wants to be a movie star and Clyde wants to be Jesse James. That thirst for celebrity resonates today, as does the echo of economic woes, with its drumbeat of foreclosures and bank failures.

Wildhorn was last on Broadway this spring with "Wonderland," an updated telling of "Alice in Wonderland" that had some good songs but came with a book that was, at best, insipid. This time, his musical is much better but is ultimately let down by the same problem: a sometimes middling book.

That's not to say the book writer Ivan Menchell and the creative team haven't thrown all they can into the story: There are appearances by Bonnie and Clyde's childhood selves, there's a subplot with Clyde's brother, a love triangle with a cop, some eye-candy with both leads in their underwear, an attempt to explain the source of criminality, and energetic projection design by Aaron Rhyne that includes old headlines and photos.

Calhoun keeps more than two dozen scenes and miniscenes in constant motion, with actors sometimes setting up in the dark edges of the stage even as their fellow actors are still performing elsewhere. His sly sense of humor is on show when a choir singing God's praises with their hands in the air transform into customers with their hands in the air.

There are also dramatic shoot outs — marred somewhat by the distinctive sound of kiddie cap guns — and more vintage cars on stage than a showing of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." There is also what seems like vestiges from an earlier version of the musical, like a huge, expensive-looking tree stump that appears for just a few seconds in Act 2.

The plot is a mostly chronological, taking the couple from their first meeting to their bloody end. Menchell deserves credit for trying to elevate the story by looking at their quest for celebrity, but stumbles when it comes to exposition. "Clyde's been shot. He's in trouble," one character says after we've all clearly seen Clyde shot and in trouble.

There's also a bit of bloat, but Black's lyrics fit perfectly in Wildhorn's songs and even add an edge that sometimes is missing from the book. "No way I'll see heaven," Clyde sings in one bluesy song, "so let's raise a little hell."

But there can be no grousing when it comes to Osnes and Jordan, who are as gorgeous as some of the first-rate tunes they get to sing, such as the catchy "This World Will Remember Me," the fist-pumping "When I Drive" and the poignant "Dyin' Ain't So Bad."

Jordan, who was in "Rock of Ages," is charisma in person, a ball of swaggering arrogance with a sad boy underneath that's catnip to Bonnie (and many of the women in the audience). Bonnie, we are told, was a ravishing redhead, and Osnes is just that — this "Anything Goes" alumna transforms from a girl in need of attention (her sad "How 'Bout a Dance" is beautiful) to a stone-cold fox cradling a shotgun. This is a killer combination: They will slay you, literally.

Some of the standouts in the supporting cast include Louis Hobson as the lawman who loves Bonnie. He shares a great duet with Clyde — "You Can Do Better Than Him" — but has a tendency to dramatically punch things such as desks to get the point across that he's mad. Melissa van der Schyff as Blanche Barrow has the funny "You're Goin' Back to Jail" ensemble song and the achingly pretty duet with Bonnie "You Love Who You Love."

Tobin Ost's scenic design are based around several huge vertical wood barn-looking panels that go up and down to highlight action, and his set has several sloping platforms that he uses to great effect when arraying silhouettes against mournful colors projected on the back wall.

Ost also designed the costumes, heavy on three-piece suits, house dresses, hats and suspenders. In one inspired moment, Bonnie and Clyde put on clothes that match exactly what the couple was wearing in a 1930s photograph that is projected as they dress.

Little touches such as that, plus a great score and terrific leads, make "Bonnie & Clyde" a peripatetic, but pretty musical, despite having a body count almost as high as "King Lear."