Certain stories manage to seize the essence of the human condition while also acting as a cautionary tale. Narratives of this kind hit harder when they’re based on a true story, and “Bonnie & Clyde,” the musical, which is playing at the Candlelight Pavilion through October 13th, is exactly that. It is precisely the kind of enthralling journey that is both sordid and heartbreaking, complex and somehow lucid.
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow loved each other dearly as any couple did, but instead of living a normal life together, they committed sinful deeds of theft and murder during the Great Depression. They went out in a blaze of blighted glory on May 23, 1934, before the mythology of their ill-fated romance was resuscitated via Arthur Penn’s 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Since premiering in La Jolla in 2009, followed by Broadway in 2011, the musical rendition unfortunately floundered in the eyes of critics. However, the Candlelight Pavilion’s honest and dramatic depiction gets it right and proves that it’s all in the presentation.
Director Victor Hernandez, an original member of the “Bonnie & Clyde” cast on Broadway, makes the absolute best of Ivan Menchell’s book, ensuring his performers maximize each spoken word and lyric (by Don Black). There is a sense that we’re watching two lovers urgently destined by their own wrongdoings toward an inevitably tragic end, and the trajectory of this engrossing path never relents, intensified by gripping emotion and a fusillade of gunfire. In addition, music director Ryan O’Connell, who plays the keys live on a raised platform, along with Julian Cantrell (bass), David Catalan (keys/woodwind), James Saunders (violin), Adrian Vega (guitar), and Alan Waddington (drums/percussion), do the original music by Frank Wildhorn a great justice. Last, but not least, Chuck Ketter’s wood-paneled set design transports us back to the 1930s, as do the period costumes by Merrill Grady and Linda Vick, the authentic wigs by Michon Gruber-Gonzales, and the historical film projections, of the actual players involved, by Aaron Rhyne.
We’re first introduced to an adolescent Bonnie & Clyde via Joey Caraway and Serena Thompson, respectively, who set the tone of the once-innocent and well-meaning characters with great vocals in “Picture Show.” Both are ambitious beyond their wildest imaginations; Clyde has a fascination with Billy the Kid and Al Capone, and Bonnie wants to be a poet, actress, and singer. When Callandra Olivia (who was last seen at the Candlelight Pavilion in “Legally Blonde”) and Beau Brians step out as the grown-up Bonnie & Clyde, we see a star-crossed pairing that becomes more misguided and led astray mostly because of the latter’s influence. Olivia and Brians, moreover, share a palpably torrid chemistry that is meaningful and highlighted during “The World Will Remember Me,” “The World Will Remember Us,” and the harrowingly melancholic “Too Late to Turn Back Now.”
Olivia is the quintessential “ravishing redhead” whose Bonnie, a small-town waitress and a loving daughter to her mother (played heart-rendingly by Jennifer Lawson), can’t help but be attracted to Clyde’s wayward magnetism. Olivia’s effortless vocals are unflaggingly strong, harnessing much spirit and emotion, as in “How ‘Bout a Dance?” and the poignant “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Similarly, Brians invokes the unbounded spirit of Clyde, who also adores his parents (well-cast in Lisa Dyson and Jim Skousen), though finds himself being a repeat offender doomed to a life without atonement. Brians’ Clyde is on the blistering road to perdition, and the actor embraces that about his persona, channeling a vigor that refuses to back down, and instead fires back with his own brand of retribution against the law as he seeks out the rush of notoriety. Brians bellowingly emotes Clyde’s mischievousness during “When I Drive,” and displays a rancorous rage against the system throughout “Raise a Little Hell.” Not to mention, caught between Bonnie & Clyde’s love affair is the young police officer, Ted Hinton, portrayed by David Šášik, who makes a compelling case against Clyde with “You Can Do Better Than Him.”
Somewhat paralleling Bonnie & Clyde’s union is Buck Barrow, brother to Clyde and familial partner in crime, and his wife, Blanche. Nic Olsen is bona fide in his rendering of Buck, offering some humor to a role that isn’t as austere as Clyde’s. Although the allure of his brother’s misadventures eventually beckons, he is entreated by Katie McGhie’s tremendously-acted Blanche to finally go straight and wipe the slate clean (e.g., “You’re Goin’ Back To Jail,” which also features memorably funny quips by Jennifer Wilcove’s Trish). Blanche is caught between a rock and a hard place; she is strong enough to rouse her husband to relinquish crime, bolstered by her goal to do good in the eyes of God, but she too cannot ultimately escape her association with the miscreant brothers. Unlike Bonnie, however, Blanche is satisfied with what she has, dismissive of the temptation of more, which imbues her with an affecting sweetness, and is best evinced by McGhie’s lilting timbre during “That’s What You Call a Dream.”
Finally, Michael Lanning, who originated the Preacher in “Bonnie & Clyde” on Broadway, returns to his roots in the same capacity at the Candelight Pavilion. Lanning’s rock-‘n’-roll-sounding voice gives “God’s Arms Are Always Open” an extra oomph and chutzpah that lights up the stage, as the ensemble parishioners raise their arms with holy intentions and to simultaneously symbolize being at the mercy of a gun-drawing Clyde.
Without a doubt, “Bonnie & Clyde” was a chance worth taking for the Candlelight Pavilion despite not being as well-received on Broadway as had been hoped. Certainly, it’s difficult to put on stage shows in which the conclusion is well-publicized and known because it puts an almost insurmountable burden on the technical crew and performers to get the audience invested in the journey. Nevertheless, director Victor Hernandez, music director Ryan O’Connell, and the highly adept cast have collaborated on a production that is unabashedly frank in underscoring how powerful love truly can be in not just instances of the happily ever after, but in this historically tragic account, when it calamitously spirals out of control.
For more information about “Bonnie & Clyde” at the Candlelight Pavilion, please visit candlelightpavilion.com