Bonnie & Clyde (Beenleigh Theatre Company)
Crete Street Theatre
November 15 – 30
“Bonnie & Clyde” starts at its end, with the image of its titular American criminal couple sitting in a car, dead, accompanied by some energetic Bluegrass sounds (‘Prologue’). Before long, however, we are transported from the Louisville location of the folk hero couple’s final run’s end to their younger, hopeful Texas selves. At 10-year-old Bonnie’s (Denyella-Sophia Duncan) father’s funeral, the young girl shares her fantasy movie-star ambition, which is inset with young Clyde’s (Kieran McGinlay) juvenile delinquency and career criminal aspirations through idolisation of Billy the Kid and Al Capone (‘Picture Show’). Fast forward five years to the meeting of the car loving criminal Clyde (Connor Hawkins), just escaped from prison with his brother Buck (Brad Kendrick) and Rowena waitress Bonnie (Lauren Conway) and the rest, as they say, is history… only a history about whose detail we perhaps know very little. And so we discover the lover’s story as they journey from robbery to murder and folk hero status.
Depression times are tough in the 1930s of Bonnie and Clyde’s two-year crime spree, with the businesses failing, banks collapsing and many people out of work. Still, as Clyde graduates from theft to murder, Bonnie agonises back and forth about following him down a fatal path (‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’), ultimately finding herself seduced by her growing fame as a ‘ravishing redhead’. As the tag-line from the also-named “Bonnie and Clyde” 1967 movie surmises, “they’re young, they’re in love, they kill people”. This also aptly sums up what goes on in the musical realisation of Bonnie and Clyde’s story. Still, under Kaitlyn Carlton’s strong direction, it is a pacey and engaging show, helped along by multi-media display of real-life newspaper headlines in chronicle of the ill-fated couple’s robbery spree and on-the-run rampage.
While there are no real standout songs with the score, the music of “Bonnie & Clyde” (Composer Frank Wildhorn) works well in telling the show’s story, with its smooth combination of rockabilly, blues and gospel numbers. Under Musical Director Julie Whiting, the polished orchestra is flawless in its musical transitions. ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’ conveys an infectious gospel energy courtesy also of Preacher Stuart Fisher’s compelling vocals (wonderfully revisited in Act Two’s opener ‘Made in America). And Act One’s finale, ‘This World Will Remember Us’, which sees Clyde convincing Bonnie to smuggle a gun into his cell so he can break out of prison, is a jaunty showcase of the talents of Liam Madden (drums/percussion) and versatility of Annie Silva (fiddle/mandolin/banjo) who both impress as standouts from the show’s very first number. Well-balanced orchestrations lay a solid foundation for the singers, never overpowering the vocals. And the beautifully orchestrated score is complimented by the honesty and emotion that the performers find within the music.
Bonnie and Clyde’s mutual infatuation is obvious in their unquestionable loyalty; they convey a chemistry even as they quarrel (their favourite form of foreplay). Connor’s Clyde may be no bed or roses but he is charismatic. Indeed, despite his unlikeable actions and sometimes questionable treatment of Bonnie, audience members are on his side thanks to Hawkins’ magnetism. And his prison cell lament towards the end of Act One, ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ is a powerful moment thanks to his strong vocals. Conway, too, is vocally impressive, especially in her delicate Act Two solo, ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’, in which Bonnie passionately declares that she’d ‘rather breathe in life than dusty air’.
Conway also impressively overcomes the inherit challenge of eliciting audience emotional investment in a character that spends the entire show making poor choices and determining herself to die by Barrow’s side. Indeed, there is much to like about the vigour she brings to the character, as her zealous anti-heroine rebellion is also boldly that of a woman in a time when women were not afforded equal rights. Kendrick captures the juxtaposition of Buck simple, but simultaneously complex supporting character, devoted to his wife Blanche (Katya Bryant) yet also eager to conspire with his daring brother. And Bryant gives a measured showcase of Blanche’s morality, love for her husband and fear for his safety, particularly platformed in the honest and heartbreaking ‘That’s What You Call a Dream’.
Simple yet inventive staging (Production Design by Bradley Chapman) allows for swift set changes, although cohesion sometimes suffers due to missed sound cues and severe lighting switches. Mary Oliver’s costumes are, however, a standout. Outfits are era-evocative without being clichéd and appropriate to history’s most stylish bank robbers, with channel of Bonnie’s iconic beatnik beret and striped sweater blouse alongside general 1930s form-fitting, softly tailored style pieces.
“Bonnie & Clyde” is an interesting exploration of an infamous couple we know but not really. It’s also, however, a story about American dreams, giving it an ongoing resonance beyond its depression era setting. While its songs aren’t particularly memorable in and of themselves, this musical serves more as a complete experience than a sum of its parts. While, as Clyde’s sister-in-law observes, the characters deserve each other, Lauren Conway and Connor Hawkins give us memorable portraits of the notorious duo, making this “Bonnie & Clyde” quite the triumph.