She was only 23 and he was 25, when, on the morning of May 23, 1934, a hail of gunfire from a police ambush left their bodies bullet-ridden inside a stolen car on a road in rural Louisiana. So ended the fugitive lives, passionate love, and multi-year crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and so begins Eagle Theatre’s absorbing production of BONNIE & CLYDE. With music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black, and book by Ivan Menchell, the musical biography on the ill-fated couple from small-town West Texas is not, as some might expect, a stage adaptation of Arthur Penn’s famous groundbreaking film of 1967, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It is an original version of the outlaws’ real-life story that strives for greater historical accuracy, with much of its contents based on first-hand accounts published by the people who knew them, and containing verbatim passages spoken by Clyde and written by Bonnie in her revealing poems.
But that isn’t to say that the musical doesn’t take artistic license for the purpose of entertainment. It does, and the Eagle’s engaging cast, under the well-balanced and well-blocked direction of Ted Wioncek III, brings the characters and their era to life through emotion-packed songs with a southern twang (music direction by Jason Neri), apropos dark humor (about widespread theft and imprisonment, marital fidelity, and religious hypocrisy), and the fiery relationship between the infamous lovers–portrayed with convincing on-stage chemistry by Sal Pavia as Clyde and Maggie Griffin-Smith as Bonnie—in a romanticized view of the lawless duo that is as much a love story as it is an account of their bold criminal exploits during the Great Depression.
The show takes an empathetic approach, tracing the backstories of two American kids gone wrong, revealing their childhood motivations for the reckless decisions they made, and examining the effects of poverty, desperation, and the hope for a better life that culminated in their violent deaths (all of which seems oddly relevant today, while the US is still feeling the lingering impact of the Great Recession that supposedly ended in 2009, the year of the musical’s debut). The ensemble chorus poses the provocative question: “Wouldn’t you?”
Jamieson O’Brien and Jacob Long impress as the young Bonnie and Clyde, already dreaming of fame (in the upbeat song “Picture Show”). Their early longing for something more shapes their adulthood (as sung by Pavia and Griffin-Smith in “This World Will Remember Us”), but, ultimately, it was their hatred of the prison system, in which Clyde was physically and sexually abused, and their disdain for “all the law/The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats” (Bonnie Parker, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde”) that captured the attention of the entire country, gained them notoriety, and made them folk heroes to many Americans suffering economic hardship, as their quest for recognition and excitement was realized in a rash of headlines and a blaze of bullets.
Along with the sensitive, charming, and spirited performances of the leads (Griffin-Smith’s powerhouse vocals are a highlight of the show), a fine supporting cast delivers the wit and pathos of their story through dialogue and song (backed by an unseen live orchestra conducted by Neri). Among the standout numbers is “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail”—sung to Clyde’s brother and partner-in-crime Buck (Tim Rinehart) by his long-suffering but loving wife Blanche (Kimberly Suskind) and the gossiping women in the local beauty salon.
A smart and eye-catching scenic design (Chris Miller and Wioncek) captures the look and feel of the old-time country with a multi-level set of wooden planks, period antiques (props by Eva Marie), and video projections (also by Miller) of the changing locales and vintage newspapers articles and photographs of the real Bonnie and Clyde. Period-style costumes (Kate Schafer and Lorraine Anderson) include an authentic reproduction of one worn by Bonnie in a well-known photo from the ‘30s, and evocative lighting (Miller) and sound (David Pierron) are especially effective in recreating the cold white flashes and deafening noise of the gunfire that inevitably killed the doomed pair, as foretold by Bonnie in her heartrending verse:
Some day they’ll go down together;
And they’ll bury them side by side;
To few it’ll be grief
To the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
Though they were not buried together at the wishes of her mother, they achieved the repute they craved and live on in this affecting production.
[208 Vine Street, Hammonton, NJ] November 6-December 3, 2015; theeagletheatre.com.