BY ERIC MARCHESE / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Feb. 17, 2015, Updated 9:21 p.m
Asking people to think about Bonnie and Clyde without evoking the iconic 1967 film is a pretty tall order. David Newman and Robert Benton's script, Arthur Penn's direction and Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the outlaw duo combined to create a landmark in cinematic history.
It makes sense that while creating a musical stage version about Bonnie and Clyde for La Jolla Playhouse, composer Frank Wildhorn, lyricist Don Black and book writer Ivan Menchell would focus on events and characters not in the film.
Costa Mesa Playhouse's production of the 2009 musical shows that decision to be a double-edged sword. Though some elements unique to the stage version are well worth having, much of what makes the movie memorable is absent.
The resulting show isn't always satisfying. Its music is beautifully handled but sacrifices period authenticity for Broadway commercialism. Its brief scenes and songs keep the pace from dragging, but often fall short of illuminating the characters.
Lance Smith and Ashley Arlene Nelson head director David A. Blair's solid cast, their performances driving Menchell's script and CMP's production. Nelson and Smith are equals in every way. Both characters are willful and unyielding: When one pushes, the other pushes back.
Blair and his two stars also avoid the pitfalls of making the duo either too likable or not sympathetic enough. What's more, once the action starts to rev up (that is, after intermission), we're genuinely invested in Bonnie and Clyde, and care about their fate.
The real focus here is the four-way interaction of Bonnie, Clyde, Clyde's older brother Buck (Garrett Chandler) and Buck's wife Blanche (Elizabeth Suzanne). Seeing both couples offers a study in contrasts.
While Bonnie and Clyde bolster each other's delusions, the pious Blanche pushes Buck to give up robbery and get a fresh start in life. Buck likes the idea of being free of constantly running and hiding from the law, but is torn: Each time Clyde shows up, he gets swept along by the thrill of crime.
This version of the story excludes the characters of Barrow gang cohort C.J. Moss and his shifty dad, and downplays the role of Texas Rangers Captain Frank Hamer. In their place is Ted Hinton (Eric T. Anderson), a deputy sheriff in Bonnie's hometown of West Dallas, Tex.
Ted has loved Bonnie since their high school days. Portrayed in dialogue and song, his pursuit of the duo has as much to do with his dream of rescuing Bonnie as it does in punishing Clyde – not just for his crimes but for capturing Bonnie's heart.
CMP's production is hard-pressed to evoke the bleak aridity of the Southwest during the Depression, most of which is due to the show itself. While much of Wildhorn's score has the flavor and feel of country, blues and gospel, the songs are primarily Broadway-style pop and rock numbers.
Given that, musical director Taylor Stephenson, playing piano and conducting a five-piece band, brings exciting life to the 16 songs and their various reprises. Natalie MacInnis' dance steps are well-integrated into the musical numbers, all of which are expertly sung and danced by Blair's cast.
Nelson's Bonnie is a strong-willed, defiant spitfire – no Faye Dunaway-like neuroticism here. Her portrayal is pegged to Bonnie's duality as a beauty whose barren emotional state mirrors the world around her.
Smith is an appealing, almost charismatic Clyde who's refreshingly candid about his dreams of using armed robbery to achieve fame. What we don't get from him is Clyde's hell-raising, good-old-boy core, paralyzing guilt over his dead victims and his stark sense of fatalism.
Chandler's Buck is a big, lumbering guy who looks to Clyde and Blanche for inspiration but usually heeds Clyde. Suzanne is a powerhouse: Though physically underwhelming, her Blanche is every bit as forceful as Bonnie.
Anderson deftly defines Ted's poignant, and doomed, tenderness toward Bonnie. Michael Dale Brown gives us Capt. Hamer's able mind and tough professionalism if not his swagger. Blair's supporting cast and seven-person ensemble lend credibility while filling out each scene.
The all-purpose set design (uncredited) serves well as a backdrop for the story's many Midwest locales. The show's handsome, detailed costumes (also uncredited) help fix the action squarely in the depths of the Depression.
Also of the story's time and place is Bonnie and Clyde's pale yellow 1934 Ford deluxe sedan getaway car, nicely represented by Marcus Pizzuti's sculpture. The show opens with the duo being slaughtered in that car, then flashes back to a time before the world had heard the names of Bonnie and Clyde.
'Bonnie & Clyde'
When: Through March 8. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
How much: $22 ($20 seniors/students)
Length: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Suitability: Adult language and content