What draws us to stories about outlaws? That’s a question people have certainly been asking for decades, at least as far back as the dime novels written on the exploits of desperadoes like Jesse James or Billy the Kid. In the 20th century, the lives of the outlaws of the Great Depression era--John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and, of course Bonnie and Clyde, the subjects of the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s current musical production of the same name--have had repeated tellings both fictional and documentary in nature.
And, as it turns out, those tales of Jesse James and Billy the Kid apparently inspired young Clyde Barrow in his life of crime, at least in this version of the couple’s story. Both the boy Clyde (Zach Rand) and the young girl Bonnie (Kelsey Fowler) had dreams of making it big, she on the silver screen, he with a gun in hand like those Wild West legends. And that’s more or less where Ivan Menchell’s book opens (after a prologue featuring the hail of bullets that ended the duo’s lives), with the song Picture Show reflecting how the hardscrabble lives of these young people in 1920s Texas led them to strive for fortune and fame.
It’s a good start to a show that economically and effectively sweeps us up on the pair’s journey. The show’s second song by composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black, This World Will Remember Me, sets the tone for everything that’s to come as waitress Bonnie (played as a grown-up by Laura Osnes) and car thief Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) meet and their destiny begins to unfold.
Along the way we see how their choices affect others: Clyde’s more weak-willed but still adventure-seeking brother, Buck (Claybourne Elder); his wife, Blanche (Melissa Van Der Schyff), who hopes to hold on to some respectability; and the Barrow parents (Leslie Becker and Victor Hernandez) and Bonnie’s mother (Mimi Bessette). Also caught up in their orbit: lawman Ted Hinton (Kevin Massey), who in this casting of the story has feelings for Bonnie himself, and, of course, the series of police officers, bank tellers and store clerks Clyde sent to their graves. (Don’t expect to meet the other members of the Barrow gang you may recall from the landmark Arthur Penn film; the story remains intimately scaled to focus on the main characters.)
Several of the cast members here worked on the earlier version of Bonnie and Clyde that ran at the La Jolla Playhouse, but whether they have been with the show from the beginning or just met here in rehearsals, they are a high-functioning team. Jordan has the easy charm that makes us see why people follow him despite his temper and trigger-happy tendencies; he’s both frightening and compelling. Van Der Schyff is full of spirit and sass as Blanche, determined to hold on to her man, and Elder is appealing as that man, torn between wife and life on the road. Other particularly strong turns are presented by Bessette as Bonnie’s sorrowing mother, particularly on the late Act II song The Devil; and by a preacher (Michael Lanning) who brings a gospel spirit to the proceedings with God’s Arms Are Always Open.
As Bonnie, Osnes has the right slight frame and features and the convincing, driving ambition; she and the playwright might give her a little more of the toughness we occasionally see as well. Both she and Jordan have voices well equipped to handle Wildhorn’s score, which offers a country flavor, although Bonnie’s big number, Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad, feels overly familiar. Among the songs that leap out here, though, are the aforementioned This World Will Remember Us and the female duet You Love Who You Love; that could definitely be a hit.
The show is also well served by a set of rustic, sliding, slatted wooden pieces that resemble the barns Bonnie and Clyde often hid in on the run, backed by projections of print advertisements of the day or newspaper headlines or faces of the gang’s victims. Director Jeff Calhoun stages the action with great skill; there’s a fine moment courtesy of him and Menchell during a crucial shootout, for example, that allows us a glimpse into Clyde’s tortured rationalizations.
Good as Bonnie and Clyde is, and always absorbing to watch, one has the feeling it may need even more of an emotional pull to make it on Broadway, where it’s ultimately headed. We need to feel right on the verge of all those life-and-death moments that the characters share. Hopefully, this production will make it there.
Bonnie and Clyde continues at Asolo Rep through Dec. 19; call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org for tickets.