Man, there was a good run in my life where critics and I were pretty simpatico. If they liked it, I liked it. If they didn't, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Lately? I've become mystified by critics. For the past year they have been loving up on films that I've thought were total shit. And now? It seems they've been hating on some theater that I completely adored. It's official. Critics, I'm breaking up with you.
This past week I saw the now closed Broadway production of Bonnie and Clyde. I saw it twice. I saw it twice to double check that I did in fact like it like it, and that my admiration wasn't just surprise because the critics had made my expectations so very low. (Okay, I also saw it again because I had friends with broken knees and food poisoning. But these are other stories for another time). I can say with certainly now that my reaction was genuine. And I've been determined to figure out what I saw in this show that the critics didn't.
A little background...Bonnie and Clyde is a musical about, you guessed it, the notorious Bonnie and Clyde. She was a girl with silver screen dreams of fame who met him, a dirt poor lifelong petty criminal on the eve of his escape from jail. They almost immediately fell for him for each other, most likely because they were both hot and feisty. When he is captured, she remains true and helps him to escape again. The two go on the run robbing banks until Clyde one day is forced to pull the trigger. Bonnie contemplates leaving Clyde, but she's far too in love with him, and the two begin their now notorious spree. Meanwhile Clyde's brother Buck dreams of having the wealth his little bro does, but Buck's wife Blanche wants him to go straight and be a good Christian man. Eventually he convinces her to go find Clyde with him and the two become members of the Barrow gang. Eventually the police close in and Buck is killed while Blanche is arrested. Bonnie and Clyde make it out alive, but not for long. The loving couple gets into their car and rides off into the night, ready to be pumped full of lead. It's the fitting ending to this tragic love story.
One problem that the critics seemed to have is that this particular interpretation of the characters does not correspond with how they personally thought they should be. They are stuck on the history or the depictions in the 1967 movie. Maybe its because I'm not a fan of that film, but I was completely willing to accept these versions of the characters. Bonnie being an ingenue works because it makes you think that with one different life choice, she just may have been a star. And Buck and Blanche being the more comical and moral center of the show serves as a lovely counterpoint to out main couple. I thought these characters, especially for a two act musical, were necessary ways to interpret the characters.
Another major issue for the critics seems to be the show's book. I'll concede on a few points here. I do feel that the second act becomes a series of Bonnie and Clyde fighting and bank robbing for a short while, and I'm not into ever seeing a different version of the same scene twice. We know this couple isn't splitting up, so the stakes are pretty much non existent here as well. Unfortunately, we also know how they die so its hard to build any real sense of tension in respect to their own lives when we know that Clyde will definitely make it out when someone pulls a gun on him during a robbery. It's a tricky problem, and I don't think enough credit is given to how it it practically unsolvable. The real tension should be the slow loss of our characters lives, and this is maybe where the book falters a bit. They do try, but it never comes across the way it should. Clyde, the only one who actually kills people, should struggle more with what he has done. One major problem is that his first kill totally slipped by me. I figured out that he was raped in prison because I've seen General Hospital, but when he beat the crap out of a pole I missed that it was supposed to be him killing his attacker. Clyde's first kill should have a face, and while we don't need to see the act that brought him to the murder, we should see the crime itself. Similarly after his second murder, the first time his gun goes off during a robbery, his slight moment of guilt turns into a scene where he is trying to get Bonnie not to leave him. Perhaps more of an internal struggle would have made later kills display a loss of morality. I'm not sure if fleshing out this loss of humanity would have appeased the critics more, but it is one of the only things that I can take fault with.
Some critics also felt that the show wasn't dark and dangerous enough. I may have missed this because instead, the show is crazy sexy. A lot of that would have to be scarified to make this the Sweeney Todd of West Dallas. Seeing the aforementioned murder would perhaps help a little bit, but I'm not sure how else to keep the sultry nature of the show that I really think works for it, while upping the danger factor. We see bloody murders. Guns go off galore. Do we want torture that didn't happen? Fancier ways of killing people? Even darker lighting? As someone who likes to play in the dark, I thought the tone of the show was smokey enough. It seemed like an odd thing to nitpick to me.
My biggest WTF moment with these reviews was the way in which the music was panned. I'm actually totally new to Frank Wildhorn's work, so maybe having no preconceived notions helped me just appreciate the score. But the critics really hated it. And I LOVED it. I found not one snoozer ("Whispering" from Spring Awakening, "Easy To Be Hard" from Hair) in the bunch and had several of the songs stuck in my head for days. I continue to hum "Picture Show" and am crazy about "Raise A Little Hell". Big group numbers like "Made In America" were just as moving as the big solo eleven O'clock song "Dyin' Ain't So Bad". "Bonnie" is so simple and yet incredibly beautiful. I'll admit that sometimes the lyrics can be clunky and the rhyme scheme can seem off, but I love the actual instrumental arrangement of the show. I'm thrilled that a cast recording was made this week and that I will be able to blast these songs in my car.
There is one area where the show got a little praise by critics, the one area where they were a little soft. The performances got a decent amount of praise and it was well deserved. I've loved Laura Osnes since I rooted for her since You're The One That I Want and she has continued to prove that she's the real deal. Her voice is like butter, and she played Bonnie with a subtle sexuality and yet fresh feistiness that made you understand why Clyde could see her as both a lover and a partner. Similarly, Jeremy Jordan knocked it out of the park with his portrayal of Clyde, who he somehow manages to make you like even though you shouldn't. As much as it pains me to admit this, Jordan is the most talented of the twenty-something guys on Broadway right now. His voice is kind of insane, and I would listen to him hit those high notes any day of the week. Also, considering that he was unemployed for like, a day, I'm pretty sure those pipes are going to be on the Great White Way for quite a while.
While I knew Osnes and Jordan would do fine work, I was really impressed with Melissa van der Schyff as Blanche and Claybourne Elder as Buck, who were new to me. It's hard to play both the comedic second bananas and the moral and tragic center of the show and the two did it with ease. I also felt that their relationship felt authentic, and I understood how much they meant to each other while still wanting the other to change. I'm not sure if this show will be remembered at all come Tony time, but if it is I would love for these two to get some recognition. Some praise also needs to go out to Kelsey Fowler, who plays young Bonnie. I love the sound of her voice and I have a feeling that she will be the new young star of Broadway in a few years.
I'm not really sure why it happened, but I don't really think Bonnie And Clyde got a fair shake. It's a bummer, because I think that given a little more time some word of mouth might have helped it quite a bit. I'm glad that I got the chance to see it and am sorry if you didn't. I don't know what's going on with the critics nowadays, but I hope they wake up. They're missing some great stuff.