As part of the infamous Barrow gang of robbers and outlaws, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow basked in the media spotlight, drew the ire of law enforcement, and captured the American imagination in the early 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression, this handsome young couple eluded police during a three-year crime spree that fascinated the public. In the excellent, energetic Music Theatre of Madison production of the musical Bonnie & Clyde (through July 26 at the Bartell Theatre), it is easy to see why the gun-wielding duo became the stuff of enduring legends.
Presented as a misguided youth with a heart of gold, Clyde Barrow is introduced as an angry yet adorable blond kid with a toy gun and a chip on his shoulder that poverty has created. Young performer Julian Engle plays the pint-size outlaw with defiance and a sweet singing voice. At the same time, young Bonnie Parker fantasizes about being a movie star featured on the covers of magazines, like her idol Clara Bow. Sophia Bavishi embodies the innocence of a star-struck girl wishing for a Hollywood career.
By the time we meet them as young adults, Bonnie (Fiorella Fernandez) and Clyde (Brian Shutters) are already on their tragic, almost predestined paths. A small-time thief, Clyde has broken out of jail with his brother, Buck (an affable Cody Luck). Bonnie has married a ne'er-do-well who abandons her after promising to take her away from her dull life as a waitress in a Texas town. When Bonnie and Clyde meet, it's love at first sight. Each sees the other as their last best hope at realizing their dreams of fame, or at least notoriety. They quickly graduate from minor crimes to lives as gangsters on the run, making the front pages of newspapers across the country.
Bonnie and Clyde embark on this glamorous but dangerous way of life over the objections of Bonnie's mother (an earnest and affecting Erin McConnell), Buck's god-fearing wife, Blanche (a devout and determined Elizabeth Snellings), and local police deputy Ted Hinton (a heartbreaking Joel Roberts), who cannot believe his "apple-cheeked love" would ever choose an outlaw over his steady and safe adoration.
With a musical score that runs the gamut from upbeat, '30s-inspired tunes to classic county harmonies to pain-filled anthems accented by electric guitar, the show tasks the title characters with most of the singing and storytelling. The duo are truly delightful.
As Bonnie, Fernandez is entrancing. With classic starlet beauty and a strong, clear singing voice, she brings passion, intelligence and pathos to the role of the "gun moll." Her softer scenes show her composing poetry about the gang's legacy, providing a nice contrast to the moments when she goes toe-to-toe in arguments with her fiery beau.
Just as Clyde Barrow seems unstoppable on his crime spree, gifted actor Brian Shutters seems equally unstoppable in the role. He infuses every scene with charisma, energy and desperation, and his voice soars through solos and harmonizes easily with the voices of fellow cast members. The chemistry between Shutters and Fernandez is palpable, and a pleasure to watch.
There is no mystery about how this story will end. We all know Bonnie and Clyde will ultimately be ambushed by a posse of lawmen and riddled with bullets. It is somewhat anticlimactic when the production ends quietly, with townspeople opening newspapers with headlines announcing Bonnie and Clyde's demise. But coming along for the ride is well worth it.
Kudos to Music Theatre of Madison executive director Meghan Randolph for bringing this enchanting musical to Madison, and for bringing it to vibrant life onstage.