By Charles J. Morgan
Hold on to your wallets! The famous bank robbers Bonnie & Clyde are back and they are wreaking havoc at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. The play follows the original plot, with the two of them featured as folk heroes on one level and as public evildoers on another. This twofold approach is what drives CM/PAC’s startling production of this folk opera based on the book by Ivan Menchell, featuring Don Black’s lyrics and Frank Wildhorn’s music.
Bonnie and Clyde do their murderous thieving throughout the southwest in the Depression-torn early thirties. They are characters who awaken in the concupiscible hearts of the non-criminal majority as two who have escaped the dust bowl, the breadlines and outright poverty by doing one thing: taking.
There is balance however. In three different segments, there is a revival meeting in which a fiery evangelical preacher, in maximum decibel, proclaims the Gospel. There is a very slight element of excess here, but what better way for the authors to show that Bonnie and Clyde are criminal outcasts. These revival scenes are among the best in the show. There is even an element of choreography in them.
Bonnie is seen as a celebrity wannabe who even writes poetry. It is doggerel. Yet even as they were on their murdering spree, making headlines, some local newspapers actually published it.
Clyde is a semi-literate, dirt-poor son of a share cropper who shirks all kinds of gainful employment in favor of “taking,” as does his sycophantic brother “Buck.”
Their criminal career was neatly depicted by the set. The indefatigable Patrick Grossman is the set designer and director. Wearing the former hat, he had a system of flats and slats that went from stage right to stage left and were used vertically, there being no need to do any shifting. A vignette of Bonnie and Clyde in bed, or in the act of robbing a bank, as well as the revival scenes would be seen as one or more of the slatted flats were opened and closed — most effective. He also devised a system of projecting flashing contemporary newspapers. Wearing the other hat, Grossman was confronted with the always pressing problem of interpretation and blocking. His talents in this field extend to excellence. He made them real, even down to a consistently applied southwestern accent.
The multi-talented Emily Dowdell played Bonnie Parker, coupling her powerful soprano with coyness, assertion, self-pity and an outcry for love admirably. Clyde Barrow was played by Bobby Peterson with a far-ranging tenor and believable toughness both in solo and duet.
Briggs Houston played the role of Marvin “Buck” Barrow, Clyde’s brother. His voice was a middle-register tenor. His somewhat lumbering attitude and his death scene were done to perfection. Shannon Cunningham was Blanche, Buck’s wife. She had great stage presence coupled with a caressable soprano. She suffused the loyal wife role with high morality for Buck. Her performance was impressively consistent.
Then there was Carl Tese as the revivalist preacher. Talk about power! He shook the rafters with the Decalogue, the Beatitudes and John 3 with the range of heavy artillery. ME Junge was Trish, a small part for the leading choreographer; but she is a trouper.
In the musical numbers, the preacher and “congregation” performed “God’s Arms Are Always Open” with, well, dynamism, and Bonnie and Clyde’s duet in “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad” told it all.
Musical direction was handled, as usual, by Matthew W. Surico on piano and a solid pit band that featured Kevin Merkel on synthesizer, Christian Wern on bass, Michael Villarico on drums, Diana Fuller and Lauren Carroll on guitars, John Dumlao on violin and Eric Albinder and Andrew Lenahan on woodwinds. It was the pit band effect Surico always achieves that gave body to the whole show. Kudos to the entire cast for a job well done!
The CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale will present “Bonnie & Clyde” through Sept. 27. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.