Since the days of his greatest successes, with Jekyll & Hyde (1997-2001) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997-2000), most of Frank Wildhorn's Broadway musicals haven't run more than a month. That includes a revival of Jekyll, Wildhorn's longest-running show, in 2013 and Bonnie & Clyde, which somehow couldn't make it through the end of December – the highest grossing month of the year – in 2011. Hearing that the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde was coming to Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts roused a morbid curiosity for me: how could a notorious story that won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, flame out so spectacularly in a musical adaptation? Knowing that Billy Ensley, one of Charlotte's best, would be directing sealed my resolve to investigate.
With the appearance of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as children at the top of the show, it quickly became apparent that Ivan Menchell's book was not an adaptation of the sensational film. Unlike the Bonnie portrayed by Faye Dunaway, Menchell's is a ravishing redhead rather than a blonde. There's never really a Barrow Gang, and though this Clyde aspires to fancy clothes, his dream didn't come true in Matthews. Most puzzling of all, we don't see Bonnie and Clyde snapping photos of each other – their most modern trait! – although the authentic period projections go way beyond mugshots. So, it's plausible to me now that the Broadway version of this musical didn't strictly flop on its merits. Boomers expecting to see the style and gore of the iconic film were disappointed, while it's very likely that younger theatergoers had never even heard of Bonnie and Clyde.
Armed with a reported $6 million budget, there were presumably more costume changes up in New York than Matthews designer Lisa Altieri provides for Bonnie, but with 20 people in the cast, four of them in multiple roles, Altieri was far from idle and has contributed some very fine work. What really made this community theatre effort look like a million bucks was the scenic team of designer John Bayless and scenic change artist Beth Aderhold. Weathered wooden slats span the Fullwood Theatre stage, trisected by two sturdy vertical beams. The columns of slats can be raised like window shades, keeping the flow of action going cinematically as the slats rise to reveal new scenes – or slide back downwards to serve as rustic screens for the old-timey projections, mostly of newspaper headlines, mugshots, and snapshots of our celebrity public enemies. At critical moments, a two-seat jalopy showed up in the middle of it all, no less realistic than the photos I've seen of the Broadway roadster.
Not only did Ensley brilliantly contrive to keep the action moving, he brought ace talent to the lead roles and beyond. Joe McCourt, who plays Clyde's vacillating older brother, Buck Barrow, has starred in numerous musicals at Theatre Charlotte in recent years, including Memphis and Avenue Q. Embittering Buck's every breath, Emily Witte is his very Christian wife, Blanche, after playing a similar spoiler role as Amneris in the Disney Aïda at Theatre Charlotte last fall. This bickering pair would have upstaged the title players if Ensley hadn't found such strong protagonists as Steven Buchanan and Lindsey Schroeder.
Buchanan was definitely in his comfort zone performing edgier fare, for he played prominent roles in Queen City Theatre Company's The Pride and Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's American Idiot last year. Here he sported a hairdo that was halfway between Hitler and punk, looking lean, Brando mean – in a tank top undershirt – and dangerous. Scene work with Bonnie is a tasty mix of tender and raw, but Buchanan was somewhat monochromatic under arrest or during his larcenous, murderous rampage, barking his commands and forsaking the Warren Beatty charm offensive of the film. Ensley should have occasionally reined him in a bit and reminded him that he was wearing a microphone as well as a pistol.
Opening in the ensemble of Evita at CPCC Theatre the weekend after her last performance as Bonnie Parker, Lindsey Schroeder is the one new find among the principals. She took to every aspect of Parker, most especially to her thrill-seeking, her narcissism, and her lust for Hollywood and pinup fame. Schroeder can belt too, so watch out for "How 'Bout a Dance" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." Overall, Wildhorn's score wasn't nearly as bothersome as you'd expect from an epic Broadway flop, but there are noticeable stretch marks on its beauty. Witte does a fine job on behalf of homebodies with "That's What You Call a Dream," but Blanche's Christianity opens up a whole new sector of Gospelized expression that I didn't recall from the movie. Church scenes are essentially extraneous to the main storyline, but it gave Wildhorn an excuse to widen the variety of his score. Off my radar since 2009, Phil Fowler came to the rescue for a couple of doses of "God's Arms Are Always Open." Even if it was a narrative detour, it was a rousing showstopper in the positive sense of the word.
Holiday Grow and Donavan Abeshaus were both excellent in introducing us to the young Bonnie and Clyde. Carol Kelly and Scott C. Reynolds were winsome as Clyde's rusticated parents, and Carol Weiner was prim yet warm as Bonnie's mom, quietly urging her daughter to come to her senses – and choose the hometown sheriff who clearly adores her. Andrew Tarek played that role beautifully, with seething jealous fury toward Clyde and tender hat-holding deference toward Bonnie. I found myself hating this Sheriff Hinton without a good reason why, and I surprised myself once again by rooting for Bonnie and Clyde here almost as fervently as I did in the 1967 film, despite the trail of crime and bloodshed they insouciantly left in their wake. Celebrity pistol-packing rogues are likely unique to America, more to our shame than our glory.
Bonnie and Clyde continues through Sunday, February 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.