- Shelley Kenneavy’s feature on the historical research in the WaterTower show.
John Dillinger dismissed Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker as just kids stealing candy money. When it came to robbery, they were inept, unlucky, two-bit crooks. The vast majority of their holdups netted them a couple days’ worth of gas money, tops.
So why are the two of them — as portrayed in the musical Bonnie & Clyde currently at the WaterTower Theatre — so defiantly right when they sing the show’s signature declaration, “This world will remember us”? The obvious answer, of course, is Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. But Bonnie and Clyde were national obsessions long before Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic, his ground-breaking hymn to good looks and the hole-punching power of machine-gun fire. When Clyde Barrow’s body was laid out in a Dallas funeral home, thousands of people lined up — the biggest funeral crowd, the newspapers said, in the city’s history.
In Go Down Together, his superlative history of the couple’s short, unhappy lives, Fort Worth writer Jeff Guinn advances two reasons for their fame. First, they were a young couple. Other notorious criminals were male loners like Dillinger or mob leaders like Al Capone. The country’s Depression-era fascination with rebellious outlaws — particularly ones bent on revenge against the banks that had foreclosed the country — got amped up by Bonnie and Clyde’s ‘illicit romance.’
Second, the couple liked to play dress-up and photograph themselves. When the police ambushed them in Joplin, Missouri, in 1933, the couple managed to escape but left a batch of selfies behind. It’s as if they’d released a sex tape. Newspapers and pulp magazines went wild. For obvious reasons, there were no ‘at-home’ snapshots of Pretty Boy Floyd or Baby Face Nelson. The photos granted Bonnie and Clyde a misleading image of snappy-dressing glamor: The Barrow gang was actually poor and often grubby. They mostly slept in their cars, and despite the famous photo of Bonnie waving a cigar, she insisted she didn’t smoke them. It was the single image of her that most shocked the public. Ironically, it offended her as well, yet she was supposedly the transgressive gun moll.
It’s surprising how much of all this is conveyed in the zippy and unconvincing Bonnie & Clyde. Ivan Menchell’s book crams in a lot of historical detail, details often left out of other treatments. Most notably, Clyde as a victim of repeated prison rapes — it’s not expressly stated here but clearly conveyed.
Being ‘surprisingly accurate’ is a rather odd attribute for a Broadway musical; it doesn’t exactly cover it with glitter and glory. Still, accuracy isn’t to be dismissed so easily when we’re talking about one of the very few musicals actually set in Texas. For Bonnie & Clyde, Menchell has drawn on memoirs written by Blanche Barrow — married to Clyde’s brother, Buck — and lawman Ted Hinton, who knew Bonnie in West Dallas before she started running with Clyde. The two memoirists’ dramatic importance is inflated here; they’re offered as moral alternatives. Hinton (Anthony Fortino) is even positioned as a possible love interest who could have saved Bonnie from a life of crime.
Menchell, composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Don Black also want to underscore the many ways Depression-era Texas still echoes today — from our state’s murderous prisons to the poverty of West Dallas, where many failed farmers, like the Barrow family, huddled in makeshift tents. If you’re gonna set a Broadway musical in Texas, at least get the state’s eternal truths right.
But the show’s need for setting the record straight is most clearly demonstrated in a second-act scene that’s almost a throw-away. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to explain that Clyde did not use Thompson submachine guns — as he does in cinematic accounts. He preferred the Browning automatic rifle. The B.A.R. is a much bigger, much more powerful weapon that Clyde stole from government armories. This helps explain the public terror the Barrow gang aroused. Clyde was highly effective in outracing and outgunning the police forces chasing him.
OK, so we have a musical that actually has a scene about Browning automatic rifles. What’s it doing here? One possible reason: Theatrical stagings generally do not handle shoot-outs and car chases that easily– such moments are innately more cinematic. Bonnie & Clyde is hampered by this fundamental drawback. If you take away their love interest and their poverty, the couple’s public appeal is pretty much all about gunplay and fast cars. The show’s creators must have known this going in, but they never developed any innovative solutions. So at least the show can talk accurately about weaponry. And the car chases? Well, the narrative is built around a lot of quick-cut scenes — to convey some of the breathless rush of the couple’s live-fast, die-ugly blaze of fame. Accordingly, director Rene Moreno keeps the show moving fast.
The WaterTower cast features a pair of strong leads in John Campione as Clyde and, especially, Kayla Carlyle as Bonnie. The gal can sing, and she exudes the born-glamorous quality of Faye Dunaway — a star quality Bonnie aspired to. As for Campione, he, like the show itself, is all eagerness and energy but doesn’t convey much of the sullen resentments that led Clyde and his cohorts to gun down nine policemen. To expand an Oscar Wilde quip: Shooting one officer is understandable, four looks like carelessness. But nine? We’re entering serious sociopathic territory here. Yet Campione is not even a devil-may-care bad boy. He’s mostly just a big, rambunctious country kid gone wrong.
Whatever powers these two young people — their grim, restless need to escape, to grasp some larger meaning for their dead-end lives — this show softens or blurs it, even as it’s offering canned explanations about dreams and realities. Young Clyde (Andy Stratton) hero-worships Billy the Kid. OK, so did a lot of boys. But somehow, Clyde never fully understands that armed robbery might actually involve gunning someone down — until, oops, he does. This doesn’t make him seem sympathetic so much as not particularly bright.
For her part, Bonnie — thankfully — is not the sultry-bored-waitress-on-a-lark Faye Dunaway played. She’s not a femme fatale. Great. But all she does do is slide conveniently into the I’m-gonna-be-a-star ingenue of a Broadway musical. Her hunger for fame makes her a variation on Peggy Sawyer, the pretty understudy in 42nd Street who becomes an overnight hit. Bonnie’s the Peggy Sawyer who never made it in New York. But not many failed Peggys went back home to terrorize the Midwest. The musical never comes close to explaining what Bonnie did, what alchemical mixture of love, loyalty, cold reality and doom-laden resignation caused her to drop her big dreams and settle for joining Clyde Barrow in a multi-state bloodbath.
A lot of this could be overlooked if Wildhorn’s music made Bonnie & Clyde as gripping as it could be — if it caught some of the Texas grim and grit, the couple’s hungry scramble. Wildhorn’s big hit was Jekyll & Hyde, his sub-par Phantom of the Opera that got him labeled an ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber imitation.’ Texas in the early ’30s offers Wildhorn remarkable musical opportunities that even Lloyd Webber could see are worth mining: Texas blues, country and western, gospel, western swing, early Woody Guthrie, even jazz and zydeco (the couple, after all, hides out in Louisiana).
Wildhorn does throw in a dash of flavoring early on — a little bit of fiddle, a gospel-ish semi-rouser (featuring Sonny Franks as a preacher) — but it all comes out like smooth, competent, mainstream Broadway. Much more than anything Wildhorn writes, what drops us back home in dusty Dallas is the nasal twang of a local singer. When he does imitate a period tune — like the show’s loveliest slow number, “How ‘Bout a Dance?” — it so clearly conjures up torch songs like “Ten Cents a Dance” that the number feels like nine cents in comparison, no matter how well Carlyle sells it.
Instead, imagine how mean and lean these lives would feel with something as stark and naked as a solo slide guitar. Or a bit of lonesome Blind Lemon Jefferson blues. A mournful jazz trumpet. The anguished, driven wail of a Cajun ballad.
Little in Bonnie & Clyde carries anything like that emotional punch. This show should bleed — and it should race through all the blood with that very American hope and and that very American despair: If we only drive fast enough, if we only want it enough, we might actually out-race our the crushing pathos of our lives.