A New England premiere production is something to celebrate. The Umbrella in Concord, Massachusetts brings the award-winning 2011 Broadway musical Bonnie & Clyde: A New Musical to its stage this month with much gusto and acclaim. There is a lot to love about this fresh and original adaptation of the classic love story, complete with murder, suspense, romance, and guns. Director Nancy Curran Willis has done her research, and she infuses this production with historical accuracy to create a story rich with reflections on the Great Depression and the infamous outlaws. Thrilling performances by Sarah Cowell as Bonnie Parker and Sarajane Morse Mullins as Blanche Barrow kept you riding along from one song to the next, and Sean Crosley delivers impressive vocal range and musicality as Clyde Barrow, but the lack of chemistry between Cowell and Crosley seemed to change the focus and feel for the iconic story and musical. Bonnie & Clyde felt like a love song to life’s consequences rather than a duet of infamy and excitement.
Bonnie & Clyde: A New Musical is seasoned composer Frank Wildhorn’s latest behemoth of a production. Perhaps best known for Jekyll & Hyde, Wildhorn has a unique style for writing soaring ballads and an overall difficult score for even the most accomplished singers and music directors. Fortunately, The Umbrella has assembled an unmatched team to handle the range of styles and notes, under the accomplished leadership of Music Director Ben DiScipio. DiScipio leads the six-piece band to rousing success, notably during the ensemble numbers “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and “Made in America.” DiScipio’s talents are unmatched in not only conducting the intimate orchestra but excelling in directing the musicality of the challenging musical. From Ashleigh Vittum’s first notes as Young Bonnie in “Picture Show,” you know that you are in for a treat because each note feels supported and each word is heard with excellent precision. This clarity is not isolated but extends to all of the leading and supporting performers, as well as to the ensemble of churchgoers and townsfolk. I have rarely heard Wildhorn’s score sound so beautiful, from hopeful to thrilling to haunting.
Bonnie Parker (Sarah Cowell with Young Bonnie played by Ashleigh Vittum) dreams of being in the pictures like Clara Bow, and, as a twentysomething year old waitress with a pretty smile, an energetic flaunt, and a clear voice, you well believe that she could make something of herself. Meanwhile, Clyde Barrow (Sean Crosley with Young Clyde played by Owen Reimold) thinks that he can do anything with a gun, as long as the law would stop getting in his way. They meet along an abandoned road when Bonnie’s car breaks down, and the two soon-to-be lovers sing a tight duet “This World Will Remember Me” (a personal favorite, given its heartfelt lyrics and punchy range). However, in this moment, you realize that Cowell and Crosley lack some of the vivacious chemistry needed to play the lovers ‘til death-do-them-part. Director Nancy Curran Willis orchestras some fine moments of emerging intimacy but the moments fall flat as the future outlaws relish more in their separate dreams and narcissism and less in the new-found comradery and comfort of each other’s company. This flaw proves fatal for the story’s trajectory. Without a relationship for the audience to care about, we follow their isolated stories without rooting for their unlikely success. The love ballads lack the emotional connection and leave us with impressive musicality but not a noteworthy performance.
The real love story comes with Buck Barrow (Tim McShea) and Blanche Barrow (Sarajane Morse Mullins), husband and wife and brother and sister-in-law to Clyde, who excel in their dynamic relationship. Here, we are treated to a relationship to cherish, and, despite their lack of a love duet, their relationship is cemented so much in mutual affection that we believe each of their moments apart, especially Blanche’s duet with Bonnie, “You Love Who You Love” (one of the standout performances in the production). From the flirtatious to the brazen, Mullins commands the stage and she is matched by McShea’s boyish energy as the simple Buck. Their hilarious interactions in the hair salon in which Mullins’ Blanche (accompanied by the Salon Women, played by Andrea Giangreco, Tristyn Spersky, and Cathy Merlo) tells McShea’s Buck that “You’re Going Back to Jail.” Their infectious relationship continues until Blanche’s final moments with Buck in “God’s Arms Are Always Open (reprise),” a tender moment made even sweeter by Mullins’ gorgeous trajectory and journey as a character.
Cowell’s Bonnie stands out in her relationship with her mother, Emma Parker, played with gripping sincerity by Pat Lawrence. Their scenes are teased with history and nuance. It is unfortunate that book writer Ivan Menchell doesn’t give similar moments for Clyde’s mother and father. However, McShea and Crosley do an outstanding job of creating the Barrow brotherhood, complete with jumping on chairs and hollering in their “When I Drive” and “Raise a Little Hell (resprise).” While the script leaves much to be desired, running a bit too long for my tastes, the score’s clarity and weaving into the musical’s story cannot be beat.
Director Nancy Curran Willis takes a clean shot and hits her mark with this New England premiere. From the opening projections to her outstanding research and understanding of the period and real-life characters, the musical feels as much of a fictionalized story as a historical reenactment of the period’s hopes and dreams. While I disagreed with the lack of romantic and sexual chemistry between the musical’s starring players, I recognized her strong interpretation of the musical’s strengths and faults, and her attempts to emphasize the former and minimize the latter. I would challenge her interpretation, however, because the production gives you the conclusion and outcome within moments of the musical’s beginning. The “how” and “why” become even more important than the “what” and “who,” making the musical’s relationships and the moment to moment sincerity and commitment even more poignant and necessary.
The musical moves as a steady tempo, thanks in large part to the flexible and functional set by Brian Boruta. The set opens and closes to provide multiple locations, as we zoom into the lives of these characters at key moments. At first glance, the set’s simplicity implies a minimalist interpretation, but it quickly transcended to something much more clever. Unfortunately, SeifAllah Cristobal’s lighting did not assist the production, despite having many great uses of color and shadowing. Cristobal’s lighting design left too many shadows to obscure actors’ faces, especially during key scenes upstage. The most notable success, however, was Cathie Regan’s stage management, as scenes moved seamlessly from one to the next, and the many key moments, including gun shots and transitioning sets, created an almost-cinematic experience.
Bonnie & Clyde’s success is mostly from the firm hand and steady guidance of expert director Nancy Curran Willis, but the surprising addition to the dream team by Music Director Ben DiScipio and Stage Manager Cathie Regan made this musical even more of a success. While the lack of romance between the title characters was a distressing miss, the music and vocals, the set and storytelling, and the experience of seeing this New England premiere made it mostly hit its mark.
Bonnie & Clyde: A New Musical continues until November 22, 2015, performing on Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm, at 40 Stow Street, Concord, Massachusetts in the Umbrella Community Center for the Arts. For more information and tickets, please see http://theumbrellaarts.org/production/bonnie-clyde.