“He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.” The Barn Theatre’s production of Bonnie and Clyde the Musical

Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

In a time when vanity rules the day, socioeconomic disparity drives a culture war of epic proportions, and shallow aspirations of celebrity glitz and glamor are seemingly the sole requirements to seek (and win) public office, Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde the Musical (running July 3-15) is an inspired choice for the 72nd season of Augusta, Michigan’s summer stock venue The Barn Theatre.

Earlier this season, The Barn performed another Wildhorn piece – Civil War – with comparable commentary on the corrosive myth-making and partisanship that tears at the heart of our nation. Who knew Wildhorn could be so deep?

I suspect there’s a reason we don’t see Jekyll & Hyde on the Barn’s slate this season.

That said, like any Wildhorn show, the treatment of history tends toward the romantic (or the superficial … depending on your point of view). Regarding Wildhorn, while the man only writes the music, he sure gets blamed for a lot of the structural flaws in his shows. Strange thing that, and I’m just as guilty as any other critic, so here goes … Sondheim, he ain’t. Bonnie & Clyde overlays the tale of the notorious bank robbers with a kind of misunderstood outlaw prince/princess narrative that is less Natural Born Killers, more Lifetime TV. In less capable hands, that approach can be maddening, especially with so much subtext to mine about the always twisted nature of fame (and infamy) in America.

Jonnie Carpathios [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Fortunately, this is The Barn, so the production is about as pitch perfect as can be.

Directed with lean efficiency and maximum style by Brendan Ragotzy, the show moves at a brisk pace, representing its bleak Depression-era Dust Bowl Texas setting through a series a rough-hewn-boarded flats and saturated-color lighting cues. Samantha Snow (scenic designer), Mike McShane (lighting designer), and Lauren Alexandria (costume designer) all deserve a bow for their evocative, economical work transporting the audience to another haunted/haunting place in time. Shout out to Michael Wilson Morgan for his clever and agile coupe car design that allows the fugitives’ roadster to become (as it should) an iconic character unto itself and not just expensive theatrical window dressing.

Jonnie Carpathios and Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Opening night had a few not-unexpected technical bumps – dodgy spotlight here, slow-moving flat there, and a muffled mic or two. With the exceptional vocal talents in this cast, it’s a bit disheartening when the leads sound as though they are singing through a thin layer of gauze or when one has to strain to hear dialogue as amplification is only used during musical numbers. It’s a minor complaint and perhaps exacerbated by the fact that I was sitting in the back of the house atop rumbling AC units and under the lighting loft. Plus, my ears ain’t what they used to be either. C’est la vie.

The cast? Is to die for. No pun intended, given – spoiler alert – the ill-fated fate of our titular larcenous lovebirds. Barn mainstays Melissa Cotton Hunter and Jonnie Carpathios knock it out of the park as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow respectively. Hunter and Carpathios wisely eschew actorly vanity to get to the heart of their characters’ vanity. Any onstage preening and prancing (and there is plenty of it) comes with healthy portions of heartbreak and insecurity as well. It is a testament to these performers that, while the audience may relish the toe-tapping tune-filled adventure, we never lose sight of the tragic consequences that familial rejection and economic marginalization have had on these desperate creatures.

Melissa Cotton Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The show opens with the number “Picture Show” in which the duo proclaim their aspirations to become as “celebrated” as Clara Bow and Al Capone (!). If you give these kids an iPhone and a selfie-filled Instagram account and swap out Bow for Kim Kardashian and Capone for, dare I say, Donald Trump, the poignant ditty could be about any number of lost souls today, fighting uphill battles against an economy and a culture they believe to be stacked against them.

Let me add that Hunter’s and Carpathios’ performances are subtle. The show is no polemic, so don’t be deterred by my more politicized observations. Hunter and Carpathios are talented actors mature enough to draw upon their contemporary influences without derailing the escapist joy of watching two beautiful, young exiles upend a system that rejected them from the outset.

Aiding and abetting (quite literally) our anti-heroes are Clyde’s brother Buck (Derek Gulley) and Buck’s wife Blanche (Samantha Rickard). Gulley and Rickard also turn in nuanced performances, wisely avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of second banana comic relief. Rickard especially does a fine job conveying Blanche’s tortured soul, yearning for a calm and stable family life but tragically loyal to a husband inexorably pulled to a life of crime. Her performance is a bit Eve Arden, a smidge Carrie Fisher, and a touch Sally Field …  and that combination works quite effectively.

Describing her brother-in-law Clyde, Blanche deadpans, “He puts the ‘hell’ in ‘hello.'” In lesser hands, that line would hit the audience over the head with a “laugh now!” anvil, but Rickard’s rueful, ever-so-slightly envious delivery offers wit and insight and character definition in one tidy morsel. Blanche’s opening number “You’re Goin’ Back to Jail” is a musical highlight, set in a beauty salon, with a sharp-as-tacks “Greek chorus” all-in-curlers, commenting on the unexpected joys and freedoms that result from having incarcerated husbands.

Samantha Rickard and Derek Gulley [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

The conscious theatricality of Bonnie & Clyde reaches its apex in two numbers – “God’s Arms Are Always Open” and “Made In America” – performed with gusto by Hunter’s real-life husband Patrick as a preacher whose commentary on the false promises of organized religion and government crystallize how society has failed Bonnie and Clyde.

Patrick Hunter [Photo from The Barn’s Facebook page]

Miguel Ragel Wilson deserves special recognition for his touching and winsome portrayal of Ted Hinton, caught between his unrequited lifelong adoration of Bonnie and his career as a deputy-cum-sheriff pursuing her as she and Clyde continue to terrorize Texas. Wilson has a remarkable singing voice – clear, well-articulated, powerful, distinctive (check him out in the third “Bar Show” clip below, singing Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”). He pairs that impressive vocalization with a lean physicality and personality that evokes a mix of young Anthony Perkins, Sam Waterston, and Ray Bolger. He is one to watch.

“The Bar Show”

As always, The Barn offers an immersive experience. Grab a drink or snack at the Rehearsal Shed before or during the show, and you will see performers from the ensemble, in costume, slinging drinks and making small talk. It’s absolutely charming and never unprofessional.

Following the performances, the ensemble and apprentices take over the Shed and put on a free-wheeling and saucy cabaret – “The Bar Show” – all while still serving drinks and providing exceptional customer service. What remarkable training this experience must be for any profession they choose to pursue later in life, artistic or otherwise.

This time around in the Shed, you’ll hear some Patsy Cline, some Eurythmics, some Ricky Martin (with “breathtaking” choreography), some Marty Robbins, some Zorba, and maybe a commercial jingle or two. Do yourself a favor, and stick around after Bonnie & Clyde and take in the cabaret. It is not only worthwhile and entertaining, but gives you such an appreciation for how much work goes into a summer spent at The Barn.

Don’t miss Bonnie & Clyde. Yes, it’s a fun show with a great score, but the production at The Barn makes it an essential one, offering provocative perspective on today’s fraught and exhausting, quintessentially American experience. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate Independence Day.

Bonnie & Clyde the Musical hereruns July 3-15 at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan. Tickets can be purchased .

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Jamey Grisham, Marin Heinritz, Roy Sexton, John Mola – happy audience members following the performance

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Romanticized beyond all reason: Bonnie and Clyde, A New Musical at Dexter, Michigan’s Encore Theatre

Bonnie and Clyde

Mahalia Greenway and Adam Woolsey as Bonnie and Clyde [Photos by the author – don’t try this yourself. The Encore doesn’t like photography]

Bonnie and Clyde’s bank-robbing crime spree across the American South-land is one of those bits of folklore that has been romanticized beyond all reason.

Maybe it’s Warren Beatty’s fault, aided and abetted as he was by Faye Dunaway with all those chic tams she wore – in the iconic 1967 film.

Regardless, people return to this timeworn tale time and again as the closest thing we have to our own Romeo and Juliet mythology.

The fantasy is as misplaced as could be as these two bandits were cold-blooded killers who saw bank robbery as a quick means to an easy buck,

Against the backdrop of the Depression-era dust bowl, it’s an easy leap to paint these two self-absorbed hooligans as Robin Hood and Marian for the Tea Partying crowd.

Bonnie and Clyde 3

Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as Buck and Blanche Barrow [Ensemble members Brendan Kelly and Andrew James Buckshaw in the background]

It’s interesting, then, in this era of gun romance and big gubmint fears that Frank Wildhorn chose to musicalize the Bonnie and Clyde legend – no end of “Revolution in ‘Murica” themes to plumb in the source material.

The Broadway production of Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde starred puckish Newsies-lad Jeremy Jordan alongside Laura Osnes. The show came and went, as all Wildhorn productions that don’t star ex-wife Linda Eder always seem to do (seriously, the dude can’t write a memorable melody to save his soul). However, the show has taken on a second life in the semi-pro circuit as regional theatre embraces the tuner’s timely allegory (and let’s be honest … small cast).

I spent this chilly October night at Dexter, Michigan’s exceptional Encore Theatre, thoroughly enjoying their inventive and cheeky take on the show. Directed by Bonnie and Clyde alum Ron Baumanis with a clear eye toward efficiency, economy, and zip, Encore’s production is a pleasure.

Ensemble

Ensemble

Populated with an ensemble cast long on talent and wit, this production hums along at a fine clip, compensating nicely for Ivan Menchell’s under-cooked book (lyrics are by Don Black) which fails to give us much, if any detail, on why Bonnie and Clyde are in love: be that in love with each other; with gun play; with robbing banks; or with snazzy hats, claw-foot bathtubs, and jangling ukuleles.

Encore’s production team does a brilliant job utilizing their compressed industrial space to accommodate a full orchestra (somewhere hidden from view) and a Rube Goldberg set (by Daniel C. Walker) built of ramps, doors, cages, and stairs, beautifully representing a host of locations across Depression-era Texas.

There is smart use of rear-projections as well, highlighting location changes and grounding the production in historical images of the titular anti-heroes and their family and friends. It is a clever touch, visually filling in the script’s gaps and providing an impactful and visceral connection to these desperate lives.

Leads Adam Woolsey (Clyde) and Mahalia Greenway (Bonnie) are all CW-era sparkle as the mobster sweethearts, creating a series of exquisite stage pictures of these exquisite criminals. The script doesn’t give them much in terms of character development (and Wildhorn’s tunes force every cast member into the nether reaches of head voice). Regardless, Woolsey and Greenway offer a compelling and at times compassionate overview of kindred spirits whose short-sighted distortion of the Horatio Alger myth, calcified by American preoccupation with fame at all costs, leads them down the darkest paths imaginable.

Bonnie and Clyde 4I got a big kick from Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as the script’s second bananas Buck Barrow (Clyde’s brother) and wife Blanche. This pair brings the smolder and the comic relief. (Who knew those two thematic elements could co-exist so darn nicely?) Crist and Jaffe are electric in every scene, and Jaffe is a postmodern Eve Arden, crackerjack with a line and not wasting a moment on stage. Delightful to watch.

The show runs through October 25 and is well worth catching to see a game cast of talented local performers dance through this fractured tale of the American Dream. Showtimes and ticket information can be found at http://www.theencoretheatre.org/now-playing/

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.