Before Courtney and Kurt, before Sid and Nancy, before Lady and the Tramp, there was Bonnie and Clyde. Two rag-tag, small-town young’ns had dreams of making it big in the era of the Great Depression. They wanted to see their names in the papers as they fled the confines of rural America and took on the nation at large. Clyde dreamt of being an outlaw, like Billy the Kid or Al Capone, and Bonnie, a star like Clara Bow.
They loved each other with a passionate fury that often ended up in knock-down, drag-out fights and constant arguments—more akin to their idea of foreplay than a life threat. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow may have been among the first dumb crooks to get billed as true sociopathic, cold-blooded killers. Don’t misunderstand: Clyde killed police and civilians during their two-year robbing spree throughout the midwest; however, their story seems more fitting for Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird.” Petty robberies at gas stations and small stores would go awry when these bumbling kids, infatuated with fame, made off-the-cuff decisions—like paying more attention to their hostages who wanted autographs instead of focusing on the fact that cops were at the front door ready to kill them. It all led to one fatal mistake after another.
City Stage Co.’s current production of “Bonnie and Clyde the Musical” shows us as much is true, with music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black and book by Ivan Menchell. Our two nefarious “heroes,” who go against the grain all in the name of love, or at least fame, are twentysomethings played by Paul Teal and Amy Carter. The show follows Bonnie—a waitress on the verge of losing her job—whose car is broken down on the side of the road. Clyde, who just escaped from jail, happens upon her and is a bit of an automotive fanatic who can fix and operate cars at optimal speed (which is essentially what helped them escape captivity so many times throughout their criminal careers). Both want to get out of the doldrums of West Dallas (a.k.a. “The Devil’s Front Porch”), so they hatch a plan to take on the world.
Soon, the audience is meeting the supporting cast of their lives, including Bonnie’s mom, Emma (Lisa Brown Bohbrink, who beckons the Southern stereotype, with God and family first), and Clyde’s brother, Buck (Josh Browner), who’s married to Blanche (Kaitlin Baden). Buck has escaped from jail, too, and rather than go on the lam with Clyde, Blanche—a pious woman, hellbent on living a Christian life—convinces her husband to turn himself in and live out his sentence so they can move forward peacefully and righteously.
The real Bonnie and Clyde toured with an entourage of characters on and off throughout their two years on the run; however, this version makes no mention of the many others. It only focuses on Buck and Blanche as accomplices. More so, rather than focusing on entire historical accuracy, “Bonnie and Clyde” is more centered on continuing the Americana folklore of these infamous lovebirds.
Amy Carter solidifies a sweetly coy, gorgeously delusional Bonnie Parker. She plays up the vanity aspect of Bonnie to a tee (“The World Will Remember Us”) and simply slays every song she sings. Carter’s voice makes some of the show’s more solemn, chilling tunes, “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad,” enlightening. She chain smokes Camels and,just like our real-life Bonnie, never shoots anyone during their crimes. But she does write poems for Clyde about their holdups and acts as a watcher while daydreaming about seeing her name in lights (the papers reported Bonnie as a gun-wielding, cigar-smoking killer, which only added to her ballbusting fame).
But it’s Carter’s sizzling chemistry with Paul Teal onstage that really electrifies. When they fight and make up, it’s quite believable—every time. We actually feel why Carter would fall into Teal’s arms like puddy. The façade of their characters also fade away when they’re together, and we see their hearts meld in passion, despite the abuse. We don’t know why we feel a fuzzy draw, and perhaps that’s the biggest allure of this couple and the theme of the play: Can we help who we fall in love with?
Teal is so damn charming as Clyde, despite playing a nimrod who makes bad decision after bad decision after bad decision. When he sings to Carter in “Bonnie,” ukulele in hand, we can see right into the light of their hearts. It makes the veneer of their love glow in white, despite being fatefully sealed in red.
Teal—who just came off a stunning performance as Huey in “Memphis the Musical”—merely carries over his dripping Southern drawl and it sounds like Matthew McConaughey. Also, it works. But his unabashed passion and raw emotion of falling in love make his scenes with Carter gripping because they create a microcosmic world. When the audience is allowed in, they feel something unexplainable. It’s also apparent this feeling kept these two fighting against the odds and the realities of life, despite the dangers. Love can be scary that way. But Teal has a way of cloaking the audience in empathy. Though we all know the reality of this man and his erratic nature can be threatening, we buy into his charisma.
The secondary characters in the show are good, for the most part. Browner as Buck has an “aw shucks” mentality about him that’s adorable, even if expected, but it doesn’t go much further. The main problem: It was impossible to hear him. I don’t know if he needs to project more or mics weren’t at full volume. Baden, who plays his wife Blanche, commands the stage and emotes to the furthest seat in the house without avail. Her number, “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail,” with the salon women, is a wonderful example of good performance, set design and music hitting all the right notes simultaneously because of Brad Mercier’s spot-on directing.
Speaking of which: The music in this show astounds—and sometimes baffles. The band, led by musical director Amanda Hunter, nails every genre, from ragtime, to saloon honky tonk, to rockabilly, to blues, to gospel. The blues riffs played by Justin Lacy will set a mood that can make any good girl fall for a really bad boy. But Myron Harmon on piano and Paige Zalman on drums in “How ‘Bout a Dance?” transforms the entire space of the show into a circus waltz, which perfectly parallels Bonnie and Clyde’s constant comedy of errors, narrowly escaping the law. Despite a few songs that felt oddly placed in ‘80s balladry and ‘70s Southern rock, the sounds of the show are really engrossing.
The ensemble nail it during the opening of Act Two, “Made in America.” It seems the writers wanted to draw some modern-day parallels about societal ills, from debt to religion, mistreatment of the lesser class and beyond. Yet, that message wanes. Though I like the idea, I think it confuses the script between being a raucous love story seeped in criminal nostalgia and one trying to be politically relevant. When it isn’t centered around our dynamic duo, energy shifts quite noticeably. But the entertainment of the production never does.