“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.

“No day like today.” The Barn Theatre’s 2017 production of Rent

 

“To days of inspiration/Playing hooky, making/Something out of nothing/The need to express/To communicate,/To going against the grain,/Going insane, going mad/To loving tension, no pension/To more than one dimension,/To starving for attention,/Hating convention, hating pretension.”

– “La Vie Boheme” from Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

 

When Rent hit the musical theatre scene, it created a seismic shift, a middle finger to convention, not far afield from what Nirvana did to rock music a few years earlier with Nevermind or what Alan Moore’s Watchmen did to comics even a few years before that. We didn’t really know the term “market disruption” back then, but these Gen X cultural touchstones were exactly that, staking a claim and a voice for those at the margins and, in the process, achieving immense (and ironic) commercial success and transforming their respective industries. We often forget there are more people on the margins (people with wallets) than in the comfortable middle.

(Remember the “popular kids” who bullied you in school? There were fewer of them than the rest of us and nobody actually liked them. Sooooo, how were they deemed “popular”? Who gave them their power? All of us idjits on “the margins,” that’s who.)

I saw a touring production of Rent nearly 20 years ago at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. I admit nosebleed seats as well as overamplifaction of the band and underarticulation of the cast led me to having zero idea of what was going on and longing for a nice Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Another decade later, we took in Chris Columbus’ film version, which retained much of the original Broadway cast. John loved it; I was a bit more on the fence, feeling the Home Alone/Mrs. Doubtfire/Harry Potter drector’s candy-coated, populist sensibility probably wasn’t the best choice for Alphabet City drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, drag queens, and starving artists. And, to be honest, faced with the prospect of seeing the show again, I wondered if it had suffered the same time warp that befell a musical like Hair.

Wrong. Rent couldn’t be more prescient or essential in today’s challenged times.

During the Wilde Awards last week, I befriended Jamey Grisham, who has been a featured performer, choreographer, and director for The Barn Theatre School in Augusta, Michigan, for the past decade. The Barn had a great night at the ceremony, between an exceptional performance by Jamey and racking up a number of awards. Most notably, however, I was struck by their humility and their sense of community, something you don’t always see in the hyper-competitive world of professional and regional theatre. (Let’s just say I’ve never been sprung on insecure prima donnas.)

Jamey was wrapping up The Barn’s 2017 summer repertory season, playing Angel in, yup, Rent and invited us to see their closing show. So glad we made the drive!

John and me with Penelope Ragotzy and Jamey Grisham

As an aside, The Barn Theatre was founded in 1946 and serves as a fertile training ground for the theatrical talent of today and tomorrow. Notable alumni – who served as apprentices or appeared onstage or both – include Lauren Graham, Tom Wopat, Jennifer Garner, Eric Petersen, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Lynch, Kirker Butler, Paul Loesel, Kim Zimmer, Becky Ann Baker, Eric Cornell, and, yup, Jonathan Larson (the creator of Rent who died a tragic and untimely death from aortic dissection the night before the show opened).

Jamey, perhaps channeling a bit of his community-building character, along with cast-mate and fellow Wilde Award winner Penelope Ragotzy (who also oversees publicity and marketing – they wear MANY hats there) did everything they could to make us feel welcome.

Unfortunately, their production of Rent has wrapped and is now in the record books, so this review will serve more as a reflection on the piece itself, on its relevance, and on the unique and magical nature of The Barn Theatre itself. Given the ongoing cultural and socioeconomic fragmentation of modern-day America, Rent is perhaps more essential than ever (the narrative’s over-reliance on land lines and answering machines notwithstanding).

Loosely based on La Boheme, Rent details a Christmas-Eve-day-in-the-life (first act) followed by a year-in-the-life (second act) of a fractious group of New York anti-Friends: gypsies, tramps, and thieves who can barely afford a cup of coffee, let alone hang out all day in a coffee shop, and whose “fabulous” loft living comes with no heat, no electricity, and the constant threat of eviction. Larson drew iconic characters (the filmmaker, the musician, the junkie, the drag queen, the performance artist, the lawyer, the teacher, the sell-out) and gifted them with even more iconic songs, an unyielding series of barbaric yawps from a youthquake disaffected by the 1% ruling the world. Larson was ahead of his time, foretelling a generation for whom gender and sexuality are fluid (albeit silly) constructs, who care deeply for their environment and whose diet and fashion are dictated by kindness and compassion and locality, and whose self-absorbed/self-aggrandizing selflessness drives all grown-ups in their presence to apoplexy. Sound familiar? All of it?

The Barn’s production, populated as it is with Millennials channeling the Gen X oldies, got that irony fully. From the flawless jungle gym of a set by Samantha Snow to the pitch perfect Archie-meets-Salvation Army pop of Michael Wilson Morgan’s costumes, the able cast was aided and abetted by a technical team – and by Brendan Ragotzy’s sure-handed direction – that embraced the early 90s conventions fully yet wasn’t afraid to wink at the more twee “lost generation” quirks. (The Barn space itself, if you’ve never been, is like seeing a musical in the inverted hull of an old ship, warm and cozy, a little eerie, kind of claustrophobic, and very dramatic.)

Grisham (and, no, it’s not just because he invited us!) was a standout as the shamanistic Angel, the tinsel-strewn lightning rod whose second act sacrifice teaches this band of misfits what love really means. Grisham (doing double duty as the show’s choreographer as well) commanded attention with every entrance and imbued Angel with a lovely “mama bear” authoritarianism that was a welcome new addition to the piece.

Also providing remarkable turns were Courtney Bruce as heart-of-gold-in-pleather Joanne and  Byron Glenn Willis as heart-on-his-sleeve-Jiminy-Cricket Tom Collins. Both mined the conflicted layers inherent in each role, pushing past the one-note takes (pushy lawyer, saintly teacher) that can derail lesser portrayals of each character. Notably, Bruce’s “We’re Okay” and Willis’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” were character-driven showstoppers that exemplified how each actor grounded their performances in the urgent realities of untenable situations. (I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Willis and the aforementioned Grisham made a divinely poignant stage pairing, both vocally and in their scenework.)

Maureen (originated by Idina Menzel) can be a confounding character, the pampered performance artist who wreaks emotional havoc on anyone foolish enough to give her their heart. In Samantha Rickard’s hands, Maureen was no-less confounding, but also sympathetic and relatable … and a comic firecracker to boot. “Over the Moon,” Maureen’s absurd paean to absurd social justice warriors, was a triumphant hoot, augmented as it was by director Brendan Ragotzy’s genius decision to add a chorus of dancing cows. And, yes, Rickard and Bruce knocked sassy, swaggering musical standoff “Take Me Or Leave Me” out. of. the. park.

Courtney Bruce with me and John

Overall, the ensemble work was top-notch, a blend of seasoned Equity vets and acting apprentices. The central roles of  Mark and Roger are often a challenge to differentiate, given how broadly drawn all of the surrounding characters are, and Nick Barakos and Alex Crossland (respectively) held their own, with Barakos especially offering some nice solo moments and solid interactions with Angel and Tom as the show progressed. These performers obviously will continue to grow, and it’s a remarkable environment where students can take top-billing and learn onstage from seasoned pros.

Following each Barn performance, audience members are encouraged to retire to the “Rehearsal Shed” where the apprentices present a cabaret show (“The Bar Show”) – and serve you drinks and desserts (imagine your grandparents’ “rumpus room” if it had been taken over by cast members from the documentary Camp). Given that we were there for the final performance of the season, emotions ran high – and many a heart-string was plucked – as these kids poured out their souls (and the spirits) one final time. It was truly a gift to be in the room.

I realize this post is one-part review and about eight-parts love letter, but it was just that kind of day, a beautiful late-summer weekend in Michigan, enjoying a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians portray a wonderfully talented, utterly inclusive band of talented bohemians. Thank you for the memories, Jamey and Penelope and your Barnie Brethren. We’ll be back.

 

“Take me for what I am!/Who I was meant to be!/And, if you give a damn,/Take me baby, or leave me!”

– “Take Me Or Leave Me” from Rent

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The Bar Show

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.