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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Aurora's "Clyde 'n Bonnie" sticks closely to musical theater's classic formulas

Laura Floyd as Bonnie Parker and  J.C. Long as Clyde Barrow in Aurora Theatres Clyde n Bonnie: A Folktale
  • Chris Bartelski
  • Laura Floyd as Bonnie Parker and J.C. Long as Clyde Barrow in Aurora Theatre's "Clyde 'n Bonnie: A Folktale"
The recipe for making a successful musical is probably older and more familiar than your great-grandmother's recipe for apple pie. Take some rousing musical numbers, throw in a couple ballads, stir in a lot of romance (don't forget the comic villain and quirky sidekick), sprinkle with a handful of corny jokes, and then top the whole thing off with a big tap finale.

The new musical "Clyde 'n Bonnie: A Folktale," now on stage at Lawrenceville's Aurora Theatre through April 8, sticks pretty closely to that classic recipe. In fact, it treats the old recipe as if it's a scientific formula, adding each element in calibrated measurements and carefully placing everything in just the right place.

The result is an old-fashioned, energetic, crowd-pleasing musical in the mold of "Guys and Dolls," "The King and I" or "The Music Man." Those who love the old stuff will leave happy, but the show is unlikely to win any new converts to musical theater, and some may even feel that the formula has been followed too rigidly.

The story of Bonnie and Clyde is already replete with everything a musical needs: romance, action, an evocative time and setting, glamorous anti-heros, and, well, let's call it a big finish. If it hadn't really happened, Rodgers and Hammerstein probably would have invented it.

"Clyde 'n Bonnie: A Folktale" is a world premiere for Aurora that comes with a snazzy pedigree: Members of the creative team—Director Lonny Price, Composer and Lyricist Rick Crom, Writer Hunter Foster and Choreographer Josh Rhodes—have impressive Broadway credentials. The theater should take some justifiable pride in snatching up the little gem at the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival, which showcases new musicals with an eye towards Broadway, and giving the work its first full production.

J.C. Long as Clyde Barrow (right to left) Caitlin Smith, Jennifer Smiles and Rachel Miller
  • Chris Bartelski
  • J.C. Long as Clyde Barrow with Caitlin Smith, Jennifer Smiles and Rachel Miller
The resulting show is fast-paced, funny, and charming, and it features the requisite number of catchy numbers. It's at its strongest when it's unselfconscious and unapologetic about being a bit old-fashioned. But the creators seem to want to give a nod to more recent fare and to pull in that mother lode of old Broadway: new audiences. They add in a framing device (the musical is supposedly being performed by the residents of a small Texas town as a tribute to the legend of Bonnie and Clyde), a few four-letter words, and a couple jokes that go an inch or two past the typically mild ribald jokes in a Broadway show. They're all nicely done, but they feel a bit tacked on for the purpose of making things seem less old-fashioned than they really are.

Karen Howell as tough, no-nonsense, take-charge Texas grande dame Martha, makes a great narrator, but otherwise the framing device doesn't seem very profitable, or even necessary. Lead actors Laura Floyd and J.C. Long bring a lot of style and energy to the parts of Bonnie and Clyde, connecting to the glamour and edginess that made the legend famous, but also setting the pair apart from familiar representations. Bonnie's desire for something more exciting than small-town life is understandable from Floyd's first entrance and opening note, and we just as immediately understand that Long's sly, stylish, bad boy is the one who will provide it. Bart Hansard is great with some deadpan double-entendres as the cross-dressing villain J. Edgar Hoover, but the humor has a different context on a Georgia stage than the originally-intended New York one, though both audiences will undoubtedly laugh.

Every musical needs at least one song that lifts the roof off the theater, and "Clyde n' Bonnie" takes several shots, but the honor ends up landing in the lap of a supporting player. Caitlin Smith as Blanche Barrow, Clyde's new sister-in-law, a preacher's daughter who starts off on an evangelical mission to change her husband's life of crime but ends up joining him in it, builds "Turn Away" into a huge gospel-tinged, tent-revival number. It's the show's most memorable song (The signature tune "Land of Opportunity" is harder to hum).

In the end, though "Clyde n' Bonnie" checks off all the right boxes, it follows a familiar recipe too closely. Come to think of it, your great-grandmother probably never used a recipe for apple pie. No measuring cup can ever tell you if you've put in the right amount of this or that, she'd tell you: Sometimes you just have to go by feeling.

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