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Review - Bonnie and Clyde & The Man Who Came To Dinner

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The new musical inspired by the careers of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow begins with stars Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, as the infamous title duo, sitting dead from multiple bullet wounds in the front seat of a Ford. I resisted the temptation to give them entrance applause.

But the pair does deserve a hand for their efforts, as do many of the artists involved in trying to bring life into this bloodless material. Composer Frank Wildhorn's past musicals have earned him a reputation as being a target for critical venom, but in Bonnie and Clyde his combination of honky-tonk, blues and gospel melodies - pleasant and peppy at their best, innocuous at their worst - are done in by Ivan Menchell's book that trudges through exposition for the entire first act and Don Black's thin, surface-skimming lyrics.

This is, by my count, the third musical about the Barrow gang to hit town in the past six years and getting viewers exciting over a telling of the adventures of a pair of thieving murderers is not an easy task. I missed Hunter Foster and Rick Crom's Bonnie & Clyde: A Folktale, which is said to be a satiric look at celebrity, but I did enjoy much of Michael Aman, Oscar E. Moore and Dana P. Rowe's The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, that, while making no excuses for the actions of the protagonists, depicted them as a pair of initially inept kids trying to learn how to rob people with a minimal amount of panic who grow naively excited for their growing celebrity until matters escalate way beyond what they can handle.

In the new one, Menchell spends way too much time digging into "what made them do it" without coming up with an interesting answer. A young Bonnie (Kelsey Fowler) dreams of a life like movie star Clara Bow and her Clyde counterpart (Talon Ackerman) is inspired to shoot his way out of poverty from tales of Billy the Kid. When they meet as adults, Clyde is a petty thief who, as the book tells it, becomes a hardened criminal from being regularly raped in prison; but still, the author only shows him killing people who already have a gun pointed at him. (In the second act, he sings to his younger self the survival lesson of never being afraid to shoot someone who might be willing to shoot you first.) Bonnie pretty much grows into a "stand by your man" hanger-on who claims an inability to change her life, singing "You Love Who You Love."

While Jordan and Osnes are both fine individually, there is little sexual or romantic chemistry between them; a fault of the material and not director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun's staging. Melissa van Der Schyff submits the most sympathetic turn of the evening as Clyde's religious sister-in-law, Blanche, who gets caught up in the escapade while trying to protect her dunderheaded husband (Claybourne Elder).

Tobin Ost's unit set of wooden fencing serves as a screen for Aaron Rhyne's projections of newspaper headlines, wanted posters and photos, which threaten to upstage the live action when revealing the famous pics taken of the couple in Joplin; the front-page images that seduced a country with their sexy fearlessness. The musical's final moment, where the couple reprises "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," is likewise overshadowed by film footage of their actual dead bodies taken five minutes after they were gunned down. The authors of Bonnie and Clyde offer nothing as vivid and revealing as real life.

Photos by Nathan Johnson: Top: Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan; Bottom: Melissa van Der Schyff, Claybourne Elder, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes.

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Just call me The Critic Who Came For Appetizers. Shortly into the second act of what seemed to be shaping up as a very enjoyable mounting of the Kaufman and Hart comedy classic, The Man Who Came To Dinner, by the Peccadillo Theater Company, an announcement was made that the performance would have to be halted because of a suspected gas leak in the building. It turned out not to be so, but unfortunately the play couldn't continue and my schedule doesn't allow for me to make a return visit before the production's final performance on December 18th.

So, while I won't be posting a formal review, I did want to express some admiration for what I saw of Drama Desk winner Jim Brochu's performance as SheriDan Whiteside, the insufferable celebrity houseguest (""He would have his mother burned at a stake if that was the only way he could light his cigarette!") who has an unexpectedly extended stay at the home of an Ohio family after suffering a fractured hip by slipping on a patch of ice. The interruption occurred just as Brochu was starting to reveal the softer side of the bitingly sarcastic curmudgeon. Though his character is confined to a wheelchair, Brochu is a seasoned physical comic who fills silent pauses with a myriad of facial expressions that add to the script's cleverness.

I wasn't able to see any of Cady Huffman's performance as bombshell actress Lorraine Sheldon, but director Dan Wackermann's large ensemble was merrily rolling along, particularly Amy Landon as Whiteside's loyal secretary, Jay Stratton as the charming local journalist who wins her heart and Kristine Nevins as the stony-faced nurse.

Photo of Jim Brochu and Cady Huffman by Carol Rosegg.

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Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.

"We began this production with the simplest and most time-honored of theatrical practices," writes New York Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis. "We were looking for the next great role for Jay O. Sanders."

The versatile, bear-like character actor he writes of has been offering memorable supporting performances on New York stages for over thirty years; from classical comic roles like Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night to more contemporary fare, like his essay of a liberal lawyer disillusioned with the Democratic Party in Richard Nelson's Apple Family trilogy. An Off-Broadway fixture, he was last seen on Broadway giving an uproariously funny turn as Pygmalion's Alfred P. Doolittle.

But gifting an actor with a chance to play the title role in Titus Andronicus is not exactly the same as offering him Hamlet or Macbeth. This infrequently produced Shakespeare piece is believed to be the bard's first tragedy; a troublesome early work where the playwright was writing in the style of the day's popular "revenge plays," which excited audiences with plenty of on-stage violence. The complicated plot involving a fight for the emperorship of ancient Rome isn't easy to follow and serves mostly as a table setting for a parade of violent actions (beheadings, behandings, rape, cannibalism and the like) that highlight the evening.

The play begins with Sanders' Titus, a Roman general, returning from victory over the Goths, bringing along as prisoners Tamora, their queen (Stephanie Roth Haberle), and her sons Demetrius (William Jackson Harper), Chiron (Patrick Carroll) and Alarbus (Frank Dolce). Titus' son Lucius (Rob Campbell) insists that Alarbus, the oldest, be sacrificed in retribution for the deaths of so many Roman warriors. Dolce, however, is actually a young actor, making his being named the oldest a bit confusing. Also confusing is that he additionally appears as sons of Lucius and Titus.

Tamora maneuvers herself to marry the new emperor, Saturnine (Jacob Fishel), while maintaining an affair with her servant, Aaron (Ron Cephas Jones), who convinces Demetrius and Chiron to rape Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Jennifer Ikeda), cutting off her tongue and hands for good measure. And so it goes until the wild final bloodbath where director Michael Sexton has the company splashing bags and buckets filled with the red stuff all over each other. The sight is more carnival-like than grotesque.

Sanders makes a feast out of Titus, starting as a gregariously triumphant leader who becomes unbearably sorrowful to see what has become of his daughter (lovely, delicate work by Ikeda) and gradually turns furiously mad. Haberle's Tamora is a worthy adversary, taking subtle delight in the torturing of her enemies, with Jones' Aaron a crafty comrade.

Costume designer Cait O'Conner dresses the cast in a contemporary assortment of military wear, business suits and and women's wear and, at the start of the production, set designer Brett J. Banakis has place a neatly-stacked pile of plywood panels center stage. At first, a panel is removed from the stack and placed elsewhere for each dead body but by the second half the practice is abandoned. They're also used to display simple, ritualistic-looking drawings and words. Battle emblems, if you will.

While both the play and the production have their quirks, the evening - if this is the right word - always entertains. And at only $15 for all tickets, the Public LAB series once again provides an affordable opportunity to see high quality theatre professionals at work.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jay O. Sanders and Jennifer Ikeda; Bottom: Stephanie Roth Haberle and Ron Cephas Jones.

Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.

Click here for Michael Dale's Twitterized theatre reviews.


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