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Bonnie & Clyde: A Folktale

Part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Since the bloody ending of the 1930s crime partnership of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is already well known, I feel no compunction against spoiling the end of Hunter Foster and Rick Crom's despicable musical version of their story, titled Bonnie & Clyde: A Folktale.

Ready? They die.

Okay, that's not so surprising, given the number of books, movies, and TV shows that have produced about the couple. What's more shocking is the moral that librettist Foster and composer-lyricist Crom derive from their exploits: We should be proud of what they've done, because at least they lived their lives to the fullest.

No, I'm not kidding. The bad guys here are not Bonnie (Diane Davis), Clyde (Jason Wooten), or the other members of their gang who assisted them in shooting police officers and robbing banks, but J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Carolan), who went after them all with apparently ruthless and reckless abandon. (There are more than a few, tiresome allusions to Hoover as the President Bush of his day, "Mission Accomplished" banner and all.) So, when Bonnie's friend and protector Martha (the talented, blameless Julie Johnston), steps forward to address Hoover's claim that Bonnie, Clyde, and the rest were "bad people," what else could she say?

"Mr. Hoover, these weren't bad people," she intones sagely. "They were just human people, who took what they were given from this country and made the best of it."

Not long after, she's leading the country-gospel rave-up finale, "Live Live Live," in which the entire company sings the virtues of making the most of what time you spend on Earth. Scarce mention is made of the dozen or so people who spent a lot less time on Earth because of Bonnie, Clyde, and the weapons they wielded, or of the people whose hard-earned money the duo stole. There's even the strong intimation that, in the every-man-for-himself world of Depression-era desperation, the banks deserved it.

It's possible that Foster and Crom intended all this as a cautionary tale against lionizing killers, or as a shrewd commentary on the lingering effects of the uneven distribution of wealth in the United States. The word "folktale" in the title might even suggest that they're attempting to show how a horrific story can become heroic with enough retellings. But unlike, say, Chicago, which implicates its audience in the ascension of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly to vaudeville superstardom, there's no compelling evidence in this Bonnie & Clyde that we're supposed to take it at anything other than face value.

For Foster and Crom, this is all a laughing matter: Their treatment is an all-out Airplane! take that struggles with all its might to make Urinetown, the musical in which Foster rose to prominence as a musical-theatre actor, look tasteful by comparison. There are endless jokes about Hoover's cross-dressing (he even appears in a bright-pink dress during the finale). Anyone in law enforcement is depicted as duplicitous, a buffoon, or both. And Kevin Cahoon, as one of the members of Clyde's gang, yaps half his lines as if a dog - a side-effect, we're told, of shrapnel lodged in his brain during a previous caper. Truly, Foster can find 24-carat hilarity in anything. Crom's contributions are somewhat classier, with his twangy, foot-tapping tunes soothing the soreness of much of what surrounds them.

Director Mark Waldrop and choreographer Josh Rhodes have delivered a ceaselessly energetic production in all this, with a whimsical creativity that matches the best of what's in the script and score. (A couple of high-speed car chases, blasting guns and blown-out tires included, are deftly handled via little more than intricate group dance moves.) And Wooten and Davis are excellent, optimistic leads who share a percolating chemistry that might resemble bubbling sexual tension in a show that knew what to do with such things.

But the finest performance comes courtesy of Melissa Rain Anderson. As Bonnie's dementia-riddled mother, her vacant stares and wistful voice bring flesh and blood to her disconnected recollections, suggesting a calmness and a respect for suffering to be found nowhere else in this Bonnie & Clyde. While it is reassuring that Foster can find so much compassion for those afflicted with debilitating mental illness, one must wonder why those whose lives were ruined or ended altogether by the real Bonnie and Clyde don't earn similar sympathy. They, after all, were "human people," too.

Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival

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