Music: Frank Wildhorn
Book: Ivan Menchell
Lyrics: Don Black
Director: Nick Winston
“He puts the hell in the hello”. When Clyde Barrow met Bonnie Parker in early 1930, a legendary criminal duo was born. 90 years later, the musical by Frank Wildhorn, Ivan Menchell and Don Black has arrived in London for a gig, a decade after the musical Bonnie and Clyde premiered on Broadway. Now starring in a fully staged production for the first time in the UK at the Arts Theater with many of the same performers, the armed lovers are ready to Raise a Little Hell.
Stranded on a country road, waitress Bonnie Parker enlists the help of petty thief Clyde Barrow to fix her car and the couple quickly fall in love. She has movie star aspirations, he wants to be the next notorious cowboy-hero, but Clyde and his brother Buck are in jail and getting out. Escaping a brutal prison regime, Clyde crosses a line and, desperately in love, he takes Bonnie with him. Reveling in their Robin Hood fame, the lovers find themselves on borrowed time.
This musical version of Bonnie and Clyde doesn’t have an illustrious history with only a short New York tour and a cult soundtrack, meaning few people have ever seen the play as a fully realized production. Nick Winston has retained several cast members from the concert version in January and makes a pretty compelling case for restoring the show’s reputation. It has depth in its main characters and a blues-meets-country-meets-Broadway score wrapped around a dramatic story about the price of love that asks you if you should cut back on your dreams.
Rare for a musical theater play, it is Ivan Menchell’s comic strip that is most memorable, particularly the witty conversation between the ladies gathered in Blanche Barrow’s hairdressing salon who savor the freedom that the imprisonment of their husbands brought them, and in the underhanded exchanges of Blanche and Bonnie. . In fact, it’s the female leads who emerge as the more rounded characters – Bonnie aiming for Hollywood and seeing glamor in Clyde while Blanche seeks smaller contentment in a quiet life and perhaps a family with Buck. Both dreams have consequences for women, and it’s their perspective that creates the series’ pathos.
Clyde and Buck are a bit flatter in comparison; there’s a brotherly bond, a backdrop of economic hardship, and a determination to live differently from their parents, but First Act Clyde is little more than reckless and short-tempered. Things change quickly in Act II, however, and the brutal prison experience changes him. There’s ultimately a lot more substance to Clyde, reflected in the music given to him.
Wildhorn’s score is vast but harmonious. It leans more towards love songs like How ‘Bout a Dance, You Love Who You Love and That’s What I Call a Dream, but there are also strong rock tracks like Raise a Little Hell, while the context as Made in America set the stage for economic depression and a crumbling American dream, mirroring the desperation in Clyde’s words “freedom is something I must steal”.
Frances Mayli McCann is an excellent Bonnie, both romantic and pragmatic while placing her incredible voice at the heart of the show. The musical may be a little light on Bonnie’s transformation from law-abiding citizen to armed bank robber, but Mayli McCann’s charismatic performance holds up. Jordan Luke Gage has less work to do but seizes the greatest opportunities presented in Act II to bring out Clyde’s drive, the effect of his second prison term on his character hardening, and his devotion to Bonnie, landing nicely. powerful numbers. But it’s Natalie McQueen you’ll remember, her comedian Blanche is funny and warm but full of soul, desperately trying to save her husband from himself and breaking your heart in the process.
There are imperfections here, a subplot about a local sheriff in love with Bonnie adds little to the story, Act II goes beyond reshoots and it could perhaps take a lesson from Thrill Me: The Story of Leopold and Loeb shedding excess numbers and subplots to make this 2.5 hour show a little leaner. But audiences have long been waiting for this musical to reach the West End. It is a production that does a lot to restore the image of the series. So sit back and let Bonnie and Clyde steal your night.
Until July 10, 2022