In his book Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Jeff Guinn says the famed Depression-era crooks weren't particularly savvy; apparently, they got most of their mileage from a bottomless supply of balls. “Barrow Gang fans,” Guinn writes, “liked the idea of colorful young rebels sticking it to bankers and cops. Clyde and Bonnie were even better than actors like Jimmy Cagney, who committed crimes onscreen, because they were doing it for real.”
Their ages couldn't have hurt their notoriety, either; Clyde and Bonnie were just 25 and 23 when they met their ends in a 1934 Louisiana shootout, the story fueled through the eponymous 1967 movie. But like Guinn's book, La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere musical Bonnie & Clyde humanizes the pair on several fronts, not the least of which is the final scene. Get past some formulaic tunes, and you've got a bunch of very nicely crafted fare here, with under-stories for days and a rustic darkness that mirrors the spirit of the places and times.
Native Texans Clyde Chestnut Barrow and Bonnie Elizabeth Parker traveled the central U.S. on their roughly two-year Dust Bowl spree as Barrow offed nine cops and robbed several banks and mom 'n' pops. Bonnie, allegedly an expert loader, was the quieter of the two, chain-smoking through life amid some vaguely decent attempts at poetry. Actors Stark Sands and Laura Osnes are remarkable in creating the covert sex that drives these opposite traits—and Ivan Menchell's taut book gives them much more to work with later on. Clyde's pasty jailbird brother, Marvin (Claybourne Elder), and iron-fisted sister-in-law, Blanche (a superb Melissa van der Schyff), eventually join the gang, which, in real life, numbered nine at its peak; the story of their ill-fated marriage is almost a play in itself.
The generous stage time for Clyde's beleaguered parents, the central figures' cute quibbles about the order of their names, Clyde's glowing letter to Henry Ford on the V-8 as a getaway car: Nuance after nuance cascades from the stage, and director Jeff Calhoun and the creatives don't miss much in adorning them. In their hands, little stuff like shattering glass, a flagging car battery and an officer's tentative last steps add up to a lot of big stuff as the actors play off the tech for the outstanding model it is. Watch as Bonnie's mom Emma (veteran Mare Winningham) mild-manneredly sweeps her porch—as Emma sees it, she may as well be preparing a mortuary viewing room, and the moment is a force of nature.
Songs like “The Long Arm of the Law” and “These Are What You Call Guns” suffer from Broadway-itis, but composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black have a honey in “You're Goin' Back to Jail,” and “You Love Who You Love” is a lean (if tardy) exposition on Bonnie's and Blanche's choices in men. Just as the strains of fiddles, ukuleles and gospel dress the music, so do such incidentals (and the consistently interesting acting they inspire) couch this story in its own fascinating lore.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Nov. 20. Bonnie and Clyde runs through Dec. 20 at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. $43-$78. www.lajollaplayhouse.org. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.