by Malcolm Gay
"Everybody's got dreams," Clyde Barrow, the public-enemy-in-the-making says early in Bonnie & Clyde, the feisty new musical about the gangsters' storied crime spree that opens New Line Theatre's season. "I've got plans."
And what plans they were.
The historical Clyde Barrow, previously a small-time crook made hard by a two-year stint in Texas prison, hoped to gather enough cash and weapons robbing grocery stores and gas stations to free his cronies from lockup. In Bonnie & Clyde the musical, on the other hand, Clyde's aims are decidedly more pedestrian: He wants to flee his hardscrabble Texas life for wealth and fame. He finds a willing accomplice in Bonnie Parker, a waitress from Rowena with silver-screen dreams and a penchant for poetastery. Their ticket out? Whatever cash and cars they can steal at the end of a gun.
Fame, if not wealth, came quickly for the Barrow Gang when it shot its way out of a Joplin hideout, leaving behind a trove of racy photos, which made them national folk heroes, and a pile of deputies' bodies, which brought the unyielding wrath of the law.
Painstakingly directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy, the New Line cast brings real soul to Frank Wildhorn's rockabilly- and gospel-inflected score. Making her New Line debut, a clear-voiced Larissa White makes for a dreamy, romantic Bonnie. Slip thin and self-possessed, her Bonnie is so smitten with Clyde that she could convince just about anyone — or at least anyone living in this musical — that an early death is the way to go with her heartfelt "Dyin' Ain't So Bad."
She's matched in the softer numbers by Matt Pentecost's Clyde, whose unbridled dissatisfaction with his humble roots and meager, Depression-era prospects serve as a strong reminder of just how young this pair was. Swinging between tenderness for Bonnie and rage at the broken economic system that molded them, Pentecost sings nicely in gentle songs like "Bonnie" and the gripping duet, "You Can Do Better Than Him," though his voice turns a little ragged during some of the bigger numbers. Still, his energy more than makes up for it in the show's tremendous Act One closers "Raise a Little Hell" and "This World Will Remember Us."
The eponymous stars get a mighty lift from Brendan Ochs and Sarah Porter, who as Clyde's brother, Marvin "Buck" Barrow, and his wife, Blanche, deliver strong performances and a critical subplot, as Buck pines to join his outlaw kin against the pleas of his reform-minded wife. Their rendition of "You're Goin' Back to Jail," though marred by a fussy microphone on opening night, is one of the show's high points, and Porter sings beautifully in "Now That's What You Call a Dream."
With lyrics by Don Black and book by Ivan Menchell, the performance is rounded out by a strong ensemble cast, and, although there was a missed cue on opening night, standout performances by Reynaldo Arceno as Bonnie's would-be paramour-turned-lawman, Ted Hinton, and Zachary Allen Farmer as the Preacher. Similarly, the New Line Band brings potency to the show's many strong numbers.
Rob Lippert's smart set and creative lighting combine with several provocative directorial touches by Miller and Dowdy, who leave corpses — bathed in bloodstain-patterned red-light — onstage well after their sell-by date, underlining the brutality of it all as the bodies, like the lawmen in pursuit, tighten around the ill-fated lovers. Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert's costumes have many on-point subtleties, as when a striving Clyde arrives home in a sharp pinstriped suit that clashes mightily with his awkward plaid vest.
Opening with Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled death scene, this streamlined version of the tale makes for a fun, albeit gory, night of theater. Still, by reducing their story to a cautionary tale — the broken products of a broken culture gunning for glory — Bonnie & Clyde also misses out on the more interesting story: an amoral pursuit of wealth and fame, yes — but one driven by a singular need for revenge. In so doing, Bonnie & Clyde makes Clyde, in particular, at once more self-serving and less interesting than his historical counterpart — who not only freed his buddies from the prison that once held him, but also, unlike his stage persona, tended to his wounded brother for days before finally fleeing on foot when the law raided a second campsite.
Of course, we don't go to the theater for historical accuracy. We go — as Blanche would have it — for the "fugitivin'," and by that measure, this Bonnie & Clyde, though slender and generalized, should be on anyone's Most Wanted list.
Bonnie & Clyde Through October 25 at Washington University's South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road. Tickets are $15 to $25. Call 314-534-1111 or click here.
Follow RFT critic at large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.