Bonnie & Clyde at the Costa Mesa Playhouse Impresses

It shouldn't surprise anyone that two of America's most iconic criminals, Bonnie and Clyde, received the musical-theater treatment. Not when you consider the genre has tackled, or limped over, everything from anthropomorphized cats and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to teenage psychopaths and human-devouring plants.

What is surprising is that the musical, which lasted only four weeks in its 2011 Broadway run, is neither a goofy pastiche of gangster motifs nor a dreary, overemoting symbolic sob-fest about two good American kids turned bad because of societal dysfunction during the Great Depression. Instead of lionizing or caricaturing the duo, Bonnie & Clyde is a rather straightforward biopic of two people who fall madly in love and attempt to carve a piece of the American dream—by murdering anyone who gets in their way.

Yes, the show's creators—Frank Wildhorn, Don Black and Ivan Menchell—point out that the two's exploits were shaped by the widespread poverty of the Great Depression and massive economic inequality, but it's also clear their story was uniquely theirs.

The musical doesn't try to emulate the carnage or anti-establishment slant of the most obvious treatment of the story, Arthur Penn's landmark 1967 film, which was more a statement on the emerging counterculture of the 1960s than about 1930s gun-toting gangsters. Yes, the Bonnie and Clyde presented here are gangsters with panache and killers with great smiles. But they're also just kids (they were just 23 and 25, respectively, after their four-year crime spree ended in 1934) filled with raging hormones and fevered passions. In fact, the show begins with both of them as kids: a young Bonnie singing about wanting to be Clara Bow with her face on the silver screen and her photo on the cover of magazines and a young Clyde dreaming of being a 20th century Billy the Kid. An outlaw, yes, but one who knew, as Zimmerman once wrote, that to live outside the law, one must be honest.

The harsh reality of their life—their adult versions get a taste for what their youthful incarnations wanted—plays out in the show. We see them meet, fall in love, hatch plots, rob and shoot, bungle and bone, and become embraced—dubiously—as heroes by those who see the fountain pens of bankers as weapons just as dangerous as the guns of criminals, as well as vilified—quite justifiably—as hoods by the law, all of it fed by true-crime pulp magazines and sensationalistic newspapers.

Director David A. Blair knows what propels this story is the very human people who inhabited the myth, and his best decision in this Costa Mesa Playhouse production is finding two excellent singers who are also excellent actors. Ashley Arlene Nelson (Bonnie) and Lance Smith (Clyde) both possess strong voices, with Smith particularly shining when the score calls for muscular rock chops. But it's their ability to convey character while singing, as well as acting, where they truly blossom. They have a terrific chemistry, and it's clear that in their relationship, while Clyde is the mastermind, Bonnie is a perfect right-hand gal, their headstrong egos and mutual passion for a piece of the American pie serving as high-octane fuel firing their criminal engine.

The ensemble, as ensembles in any small theater production of a big musical invariably are, ranges from the steady (Elizabeth Suzanne's Blanche is a standout) to the shaky. Things tend to lose interest when the focus isn't on the principal characters, and the second act is hamstrung by long, clunky blackouts during which set pieces are rolled on and off and a light design that seems stuck on No. 4 (out of 10). But even with the dicey production values, it's still an entertaining ride, made most enjoyable by the clear explication of Menchell's book and a score that, while not dishing out any memorable numbers, is inviting and reachable—thanks in no small part to a five-person band under the direction of Taylor Stephenson.

Those who choose to care, for even the slightest moment, about OC theater have a legitimate gripe with the number of oft-produced musicals upon its stages. But they make economic sense with their large casts and audience familiarity. That said, this show, which had a short Broadway run and only sporadic productions since its 2009 debut at the La Jolla Playhouse, isn't one of them. It's newish and unfamiliar and sexy and (somewhat) violent, all of which makes it a ballsy decision for a community theater celebrating its 50th season.

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