London’s “most wanted musical” finally opens in the West End, following a concert version last year with Frances Mayli McCann and Jeremy Jordan.
Composed by Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Don Black, the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s road to infamy is perhaps best known from Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 film.
As Bonnie and Clyde turns musical, the Arts Theatre becomes a tatty prosenium riddled with holes and bullet holes. Philip Whitcomb’s set screams poverty and deprivation, as we first meet the deadly duo as children. Nick Winston as director/choreographer brings a between the wars America to life.
Bonnie (McCann returns to the role) worships Clara Bow, the It girl of the silent screen; Clyde (Jordan Luke Gage) mimics Billy the Kid and plays with guns. Both live by delusion as they grow up, He in and out of prison with his brother for petty crimes, she bored at waitressing.
In this show, there are hints of both Romeo and Juliet and Sid and Nancy about the titular couple. Their chemistry instant, their career choice somehow romanticised. Both on the eve of destruction on a countdown of carnage.
Clyde loves himself more than anybody else while Bonnie seems to daydream her way into a twisted kind of fame where she signs autographs at robberies.
The performances are strong throughout. Supporting turns from Gracie Lai and Pippa Winslow as the fugitives’ mothers show the pain inflicted on families who become unwittingly collatoral damage.
George Maguire and Natalie McQueen as Buck and Blanche Barrow are strongly defined in their own love affair, passionate despite church attendance and amusing in her squeaky comic asides and his resigned submission.
Then there’s Ted (Cleve September), who grew up with Bonnie, half in love with her, now in law enforcement. His songs are the melodic counterpoint to Clyde’s posturing rock excess.
Use of video projection (Nina Dunn), lighting (Zoe Spurr) and sound (Tom Marshall) help make the small stage feel large enough to represent a range of indoor locations. There are props dotted on the sides of the stage from Bonnie’s childhood teddy bear to her father’s ukulele.
Lots of things work well – a preacher provides a contextual basis for the life the pair leave (and Ako Mitchell has that gospel soar in his voice); Blanche’s hairdressing salon lightens up the mood; the sharp suits and iconic beret of Bonnie and Clyde in act two highlight their growing success.
Less successful is a hint at Clyde’s experiences and abuse in jail, which could have been handled a little differently. There are many moments where Ivan Menchell’s book attempts to justify cold-blooded murder while making varied social comment. Some hit, some don’t.
I have always loved Wildhorn’s score for Jekyll and Hyde, with its epic battles between the good and evil between us – currently being reworked in workshop form.
Here, in Bonnie and Clyde, he mixes country, rock (‘Raise a Little Hell’ is an undoubted highlight, especially when delivered by the Barrow brothers together), and more traditional ballads.
Duets are dotted throughout this show. Bonnie and Clyde, yes, but also Bonnie and Blanche, Clyde and Ted, Clyde and Buck, Ted and Bonnie. There is even a piece of patriotic propaganda heading up act two.
Bonnie and Clyde is a showcase for Gage in particular, who has moved on smoothly from Romeo down the road in & Juliet, and boasts an intriguing interpretation of the ambitious Bonnie from McCann.
It’s a little cheesy, a little heart-rending, a little bit spectacular, but always fun.
You can watch Bonnie and Clyde in a limited season at the Arts Theatre – details and tickets here.
Image: Richard Davenport