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The first thing we are struck by when we enter the theater at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre is the magnificent set arranged for Bonnie and Clyde. It is completely symmetrical and looks like no other set we’ve ever seen at NRACT. Made completely of wood, the entirety overlooked by the skull of a longhorn steer, two ramps downstage left and right rise up to a platform center stage, with steps in front. That platform holds a secret, but we’ll see that later. Behind that platform, a walkway runs the entire width of the set, and behind that narrow walkway are three beautiful, wooden panels looking for all the world like garage doors. Those doors slide open at various times during the show to reveal a number of different locales in Bonnie and Clyde’s domain, the south central United States. Kudos to Ian Robson for this dynamic set.
This stage production of Bonnie and Clyde is a supremely ambitious work that looks at the pair going back as far as age 10. Young Bonnie (Julia Clayton) is unhappy at having to attend her grandma’s funeral. Clyde (Adele Baldina), on the other hand, has received his first BB rifle and is completely empowered. Armed with that weapon, Clyde feels there is nothing he can’t do. Bonnie dreams of being famous, an actress and a poet. Clyde does too, but in a very different sense. Clyde’s hero is Al Capone, and Clyde is sure that, if he follows in the man’s footsteps, he will become even more famous than the Chicago gangster. It is years still before the two would meet, and already their paths seem set in stone.
Bonnie and Clydeis a musical; there are 22 actors in the cast and a bevy of 20 songs. One wonders how they are going to fit that large cast onto NRACTs stage, but director Jeri Lynn Schulke makes it work. The music for this show is powerful; it blasts off the stage and, in the hands of these talented singers, blows us away. The music is pre-recorded, but that’s okay. Once the cast starts to sing, we are no longer concerned. The power built into these songs takes over, and we are transfixed.
By the time Bonnie Parker (Reanna Kicinski) meets Clyde in their hometown of West Dallas – the “Devil’s Back Porch” – the place is already too small for either of them. Bonnie is writing poetry, and she intends that it be the kind that gets published, the kind that’ll make you sit up and take notice. Clyde (Ty Myatt) – well, he and brother Buck (Daryl Ray Carliles) have already made a name for themselves by busting out of the local jail, where they were each serving two years for armed robbery. Buck has snuck back into the beauty salon run by his wife Blanche (Lauren Tompkins) to see his bride, while Clyde acquaints Bonnie with his “plan.” It is 1934, the height of the Great Depression, and work, if one can find it, is a scrabble-each-day existence. That’s not for Clyde, a virile and charismatic young man, who has no intention of living hand-to-mouth. He has seen that the banks are foreclosing on every farm, so the money and the power lie in the banks. Clyde sees the banks as the enemy; he intends to get his money, and his power, by taking it (“This World Will Remember Me”). Buck, on the other hand, has seen his bride, and she tells him just one thing: “You’re Going Back to Jail.”
The music for Bonnie and Clyde was written by Frank Wildhorn, with lyrics by Don Black and book by Ivan Menchell. In the hands of these fine singers, under the musical direction of Joanna "Jo" Li, this music jumps right off the stage, grabs us by the throat, and carries us helplessly along with it. And we are eager to go; we want to know what’s going to happen next. Bonnie and Clyde runs a hefty two-and-a-half hours, but we take no notice; the action clips along at a frenetic pace, and we are caught up in the current. Each new number, powerfully sung by Myatt or sweetly lilted by Tompkins, meets with rowdy and raucous applause. This audience is so into what’s happening on stage that, once the power of Myatt combines with the smoky sultriness of Kicinski, it brings the house down.
There are still others on stage with tales to tell. Ted (Zach Meeker), one of the local deputies, has fallen for Bonnie, and it seems, before she gets involved with Clyde, that Bonnie might return his affections. But once Bonnie and Clyde have clicked, they leave poor Ted howling at the moon (“You Can Do Better than Him”). Bonnie falls very hard, and despite the fact that she wants to break away from all this and go west to Hollywood, she is nevertheless a willing participant in Clyde’s escapades. She can’t help herself; Clyde has swept her off her feet, and it’s “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” Blanche, who gets caught up in this new gang’s activities, is only there to try to keep Buck alive. He’s thrown in his lot with his brother, and Blanche’s only hope now is to keep breathing the husband she cannot live without. She holds no respect for Bonnie, who is a willing participant. Nevertheless, it is crystal clear to both that they can’t help themselves: “You Love Who You Love,” and that’s all there is to it. Meanwhile, the local preacher (TJ Rogers) has bodies to bury. Backed by this fine ensemble, he tells us that “God’s Arms Are Always Open,” and that salvation will bring you peace. But Bonnie and Clyde don’t see it that way. To them, this is really living; Bonnie says they are “breathing in life, not just the air.” She says if life is short, that’s okay, as long as it’s full. If she is to die at the side of her lover, “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.”
Director Schulke has assembled a dynamite cast for Bonnie and Clyde, so much so that, even though we know how this story is going to end, we want to know it again. But if you are expecting a show that is anything like what you saw in the movies, forget it. In this production, Clyde is a virile, magnetically attractive man, and Bonnie is a “ravishing redhead.” The two of them together can suck all the air out of a room. The movie ends in a hail of bullets. Not so this production. You’ll have to come see Bonnie and Clyde to find out just how it ends, but I guarantee you you’re going to like it better, through March 31. See the sidebar for details.