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In these half dozen years since its World Premiere in La Jolla, California, composer Frank Wildhorn’s ambitious musical, BONNIE & CLYDE, has had numerous incarnations, both in the U.S. and abroad, even including productions in the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea. Directed by Bruce Lumpkin & Marley Wisnoski, and with a book by Ivan Menchell, lyrics by Don Black, and often lovely music by Wildhorn, the edition now being offered by TUTS UNDERGROUND in the Zilkha Hall Theatre of Houston’s Hobby Center, offers a creative look at the notorious, yet brief lives of infamous American outlaws and lovers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In weaving this tale of the pair’s 1930’s crime sprees and bank robberies, the composer aptly describes his work as, “a non-traditional score, combining rockabilly, blues and gospel.” In addition to offering a very compelling story, many of the pleasing songs in this production seem like choice crossover selections for future adoption by various contemporary vocalists of our day.
But for now, the uniformly excellent singing from this vocally talented cast would be tough to beat. In fact, while I had not seen any of the half dozen earlier productions, or the 2011 Broadway edition that lasted less than a month, I have listened to the original cast recording and found that the evolution to this present production appears to have brought many improvements. With its dark wooden beams, the rugged all-purpose and bi-level set of Scenic Designer, Ryan McGettigan, has the genuine look of a bandit’s hideout, while easily suggesting other locations from scene to scene.
The dark and misty lighting of designer, Christina R. Giannelli, adds nicely to the often ominous atmosphere. Of course there are plenty of the expected shootouts and robberies, but clearly the music is the star of this familiar, yet ultimately tragic tale (Music Director/Conductor, Thom Culcasi). How wonderful to again have a fine musical on the stage of this intimate theater, where for so many years Houston’s Masquerade Theatre delighted audiences with countless brilliant musical productions.
Speaking of “brilliant,” brings me to our stars, velvet-voiced Kathryn Porterfield as Bonnie, and vocally gifted, Robert Hager as Clyde.
As the show opens we even meet their childhood counterparts through flashbacks to Young Clyde (Scott Fonseka) and Young Bonnie (Ella DuCharme). The first song, “Picture Show,” offers ample evidence that these energetic and clear-voiced young performers deserve their phantom-like place in this talented cast. It is evident in that catchy opening number that these youngsters from the past had plenty of Hollywood-inspired dreams.
As the song progresses their adult counterparts emerge to take over the song, still full of grownup dreams then reflected in the bouncy duet of, “This World Will Remember Me.”
It doesn’t take long for Clyde and his brother Buck (Drew Starlin) to stage a breakout after landing themselves in jail. Buck’s God-fearing wife, Blanche (Courtney Markowitz) is determined that Buck must turn himself in and serve out his sentence, and Miss Markowitz delivers a rousing, gospel style, “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail,” with a delightful trio of women in the beauty salon as back-up.
With warm accompaniment from the show’s fine 7-piece orchestra, we get a taste of Bonnie’s sensuous side as Porterfield sings the sexy, “How ‘Bout a Dance?” Less appealing is the pairing of Buck and Clyde for the lashing and rather strident song, “When I Drive,” apparently designed to display the rowdy and wild side of the lads that often puts them at odds with the law. But we quickly return to more pleasing music when the Preacher (Kevin Cooney) and his church congregation light up the stage with the sensational spiritual, “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” The exciting number is interspersed with frozen cast tableaus as various Barrow Gang heists and robberies flash before us.
A lawman named Ted Hinton (Adam Gibbs) has long had eyes for Bonnie, hoping to lure her away from reckless Clyde. Ted and Clyde have a powerful duet for Bonnie’s affections with, “You Can Do Better,” before Bonnie and Blanche blend their voices sweetly for the resignation of a “You Love Who You Love,” that has thrilling solo moments for both Porterfield and Markowitz. Nashville must have its eye on that song. Before Act One concludes under the warm sepia glow of the misty staging, Mr. Hager brings wailing power and desperation to the song, “Raise a Little Hell.”
As the Preacher, Mr. Cooney is back to open up Act Two with another rousing ensemble offering for, “Made in America.” It’s a winning number, and this guy should open up his own church. Swept up in this life of crime, Clyde soon finds himself promoted from thief to murderer after gunning down a deputy. Bonnie and Clyde pair for a frantic and rather noisy, “Too Late to Turn Back,” that seemed to have a weirdly ill-timed intimacy, but Miss Markowitz nicely eases the tension as Blanche sings the whimsical and lovely, “That’s What You Call a Dream.” It’s a clear winner, and someone like Dolly Parton could probably take that fine tune to the bank.
Among the many solid supporting cast performances, Curt Denham is convincing as the Sheriff, as is Dylan Godwin in the role of Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer. There are also touching characterizations of Clyde’s mother, Cumie (Susan Shofner) and Bonnie’s mother, Emma (Susan Koozin).
This second act does offer more musical delights with the poignant look back at life’s simpler pleasures when Bonnie and Clyde reflect in the thrilling and tender, “What Was Good Enough.” With just a ukulele for accompaniment, Hager’s passionate, sweet, and romantic delivery of Clyde’s solo, “Bonnie,” was memorable, as was Porterfield’s exquisite voice for the piercing beauty of Bonnie’s thrilling, “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Perhaps that last song had special meaning when the show closed years ago after only four weeks on Broadway. But here, the legend of Bonnie & Clyde powerfully lives on, and one wonders what the next stop will be.
BONNIE & CLYDE continues at Houston’s Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St., with final performances this weekend at 8 pm Friday, 3 pm & 8:30 pm on Saturday, and 3pm on Sunday. For tickets and information visit the website at www.TUTSUNDERGROUND.com