Thursday 31 March 2016

Killers Bonnie & Clyde set to music, dance

From the footlights :  Almost no one born before 1960 cannot remember the '67 sold-out s.r.o. smash movie by Arthur Penn, Bonnie & Clyde. It featured A-list actors Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. And nosiree Bob, it warn't no consarn goofy musical neither. So that is the kind of challenge facing the theatre company Play on Words' production in the chummy Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive.

What you get is 15 actors participating in countless shoot-em-ups in banks, grocery stores, cops & robbers drawing a bead on one another while onlookers scramble & freeze. Doing so with song-&-dance routines to boot. Marry that action to a coupla sets of outlaw lovers in their 20's who share countless squeezes and a bunch of squabble, too. The question from all this that arises is simple : can such a show possibly inspire 2016 audiences 50 years after Penn's iconic motion picture. Answer : Yes! it can. And does, produced with zing and style by the POW troupe under challenging stage conditions.

How it's all put together : Clyde Barrow (Charlie Deagnon) has just bust out of prison with brother Buck (William Ford Hopkins). They meet Bonnie Parker (Sherry Freeman) along the road sniping over her broken down oil-burner of a car. They fix her ride, she agrees to hustle them into Dallas. And so the tale of USA's most notorious gangster lovers begins.

Script author Ivan Menchell described the pair for Playbill in 2011 : "Clyde had a penchant for mischief even as a young boy. Poverty made him into a criminal, but it was prison that turned him into a killer. As one inmate put it, 'Clyde entered prison a school boy but left a rattlesnake.' Bonnie, on the other hand, was motivated by an almost desperate need for attention and the determination to escape the profound poverty of her life." A waitress from Rowena, TX, Bonnie dreams big, says she wants to be in pictures, be a singer, be a poet. Not all that askew from what her grammar school teacher described as "a beautiful...little girl, she possessed seemingly a desire to do good and build for herself an ideal station in life." But soon she got the hots for life on the run instead, and the headlines, and editors who published her poems and some pix.

Enter composer Frank Wildhorn. He takes Menchell's description and cranks out some show tunes, a couple of rhythm-&-blues charts plus some solid gospel call-&-response sing-alongs whose titles and lyrics (by Don Black) sum up both the script and the sentiment of the story : "How 'Bout A Dance?" "This World Will Remember Us". "You Love Who You Love". "God's Arms Are Always Open". "Too Late To Turn Back Now". "Raise A Little Hell". "Dying' Ain't So Bad".

What the show brings to the stage :  With mild rebuke NYT's critic Ben Brantley four years back termed the play "a modest, mildly tuneful musical biography". In the Hollywood Reporter David Rooney echoed BB : "trite storytelling" whose "characters and their relationship never acquire much depth". "Many individual scenes engage, but overall the show is stubbornly unexciting," Rooney concluded, calling it "a crime spree [that] doesn't describe the drama's absence of vigor."

In part that might have been because they saw the show at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in mid-Manhattan where there's seating for 1,079 butts, just slightly less than ACT's 1,216 seat Stanley Theatre on Granville Street. The Havana house, by contrast, holds 60-some. With entrance aisle, only 40 feet across by just 13-feet deep, roughly 500 square feet in all.

Maybe it's the frisky Play on Words troupe. Or perhaps it's Director Ryan Nunez's co-conspiracy with Choreographer Lyndsey Britten that energizes the cast under Musical Director Marquis Byrd. But POW has put together a production that is anything but! "stubbornly unexciting" or suffering an "absence of vigor". The show has verve and pizazz that small-theatre fans will find engaging, even though the meta-message delivers a cautionary tale for our times.

Redux Arthur Penn. His publicists crafted this catchy ad tagline : "They're young, they're in love, they kill people." Trouble is these days those descriptors apply, in real time, to violent jihadislam-cult killers like the San Bernardino couple or the Canada Day family picnic plotters, those desperate and pathetic wannabe bombers from nearby Surrey still on trial.  In such a world, no question one needs a super-charged suspension of disbelief to watch any kind of theatrical violence whatever, even when it's sugar-coated with "some show tunes, a couple of rhythm-&-blues charts plus some solid gospel call-&-response sing-alongs" on the side.

Production hi-lites of POW's show : No small feat to squeeze 15 actors and a 5-piece live band into 500 square feet in a narrow rectangle for virtually the entire 130 minutes of show. But between them, as noted above, Director Ryan Nunez and Choreographer Lyndsey Britten sussed out their stage, their characters, and the musical script well indeed. They filled the stage spaces with vignette settings where the supporting actors stayed universally in-character doing bits of stage business while the main action occurred centre stage. Nunez had Bonnie and Clyde plop onto the stage deck repeatedly, leaning against one another and nuzzling, to fine effect. 

The costume design by Marci Herron was a cross between Grandma's attic and Sally Ann, pretty well spot-on to depict the times. Jessica Snook's set design was a serviceable mix of scattered opera chairs and brocade furniture and fixings. The Model-A Ford, for its part, was endearingly risible, purposely designed no doubt to be as if on loan from the grandkids' summer backyard show.

Two numbers particularly by choreographer Britten were eye-grabbing pleasures : the "God's Arms Are Always Open" gospel with a weaving arms-to-the-heavens Sunday service ensemble in Act I, and the sarcastic, bitter "Made In America" protest anthem by the troupe to kick off Act II. Very capable and resourceful design well executed by the cast.

Musical Director Marquis Byrd no doubt had a direct hand in selecting the singers of the Wildhorn / Black songs. His choices, to a person, did not disappoint in the least. Smart singing by all.

Acting pin-spots : Leads Freeman and Deagnon as B-&-C of course carried much of the script, and delightfully so. Both held character with loving facial repartee throughout; their visceral spats, hissing atop one another, were crisp & poignant acting. 

In support, brother Buck, William Ford Hopkins opposite Cassady Ranford as wife Blanche were both as compelling as their siblings. Ranford particularly evinced great poise as the conflicted, God-fearing hairdresser wife who found herself dragged into the Barrow Gang only because her love for Buck trumped -- if in today's world that's not now a poisonous verb -- her fear of God's wrath. 

Who gonna like : A young company founded by Capilano U. drama grads, POW is theatre that should be seen by young actors and musicians and stage performers of all variety who want a first-hand look at what imagination and creativity and focus and concentration on detail can accomplish in minimal space with minimal resources and even fewer dollars. The Havana stage is literally, not just figuratively, coffee house theatre. 60 seats! My long legs and big feet in Row 1 almost tripped the actors more than once they were so close as they rambled and danced across the stage. Older folk who know the story of The Poet and The Bandit -- B.C.'s Susan Musgrave and her ex-con bank robber husband Stephen Reid -- will find some lyrical parallels afoot here as well. The future of B.C. professional live theatre is alive and well and growing and prospering. This show is proof!

Particulars : Bonnie & Clyde the Musical.  Composer Frank Wildhorn. Lyrics Don Black. Book by Ivan Menchell. Produced by Play On Words Productions. Presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International. At Havana Theatre in the Havana Restaurant on Commercial Drive across from Brittania Park [my favourite Vancouver street]. Until April 9th. Tickets via Eventbrite as well as at the door on the night of the show ($25 g.a. \ $22 provably students -or- seniors).

Production Team : Producers Sabrielle McCurdy Foreman, Theo Budd, Ryan Nunez. Director Ryan Nunez.  Musical Director Marquis Byrd. Choreographer Lyndsey Britten.  Fight Choreographer Sylvie LaRiviere. Costume Designer Marci Herron. Set Designer Jessica Snook. Props Master/Design CJ McGillvray.  Sound Designer Clare Wyatt. Lighting Designer Andrew Chu. Stage Managers Kaja Jean, Ziggy Shultz. Front of House Coordinator Chloe Rowat. 

Orchestra : Marquis Byrd (Keyboard). Jamison Ko (Percussion). Clarice Scop (Fiddle). Adrian Sowa (Guitar). Joanna Yoo (String & electric bass).

Performers :  Jessie Alvarez (Deputy Hamer / Guard).  Henry Beasley (Ted Hinton / Fight Captain).  Nathan Cottell (Sheriff Schmid).  Charlie Deagnon (Clyde Barrow).  Sabrielle McCurdy Foreman (Preacher / Judge). Sherry Freeman (Bonnie Parker). William Ford Hopkins (Buck Barrow). YooRa Kang (Stella / Shopkeeper). Steven Masson (Henry Barrow / Joe / Bud Russel / Bob Alcorn). Taylor McKee (Young Bonnie Parker / Customer). Cassady Ranford (Blanche Barrow). Chloe Rowat (Cumie Barrow / Governor Ferguson / Front of House). Jason Sakai (Young Clyde Barrow / Archie). Stefanie Stanley (Emma Parker). Annastasia Unger (Trisch / Teller).

Addendum -- Director's Notes [from show program]

It's for the love of a man that I'm gonna have to die.
I don't know when, but I know it can't be long.  - Bonnie Parker

The idea to mount this production of Bonnie and Clyde : The Musical in Vancouver came from a side comment I made while listening to How 'bout a Dance. "We should do this show!" I said. Now, a year or so later we're opening here at the wonderful Havana Theatre. Frank Wildhorn creates such an incredible score and script, telling stories of the real events from the lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. What I love about this show is the fight between what is right, and what is wrong. The hope is that the audience should feel confused on why they are rooting for these cold blooded killers. The cast that we have assembled have brought these historical characters back from the dead and shine a light on a time where America would do anything to be on the front page.

I am completely floored by the talent we have accumulated for this production. From the amazing young cast, to the hardworking crew. Many people in this production are making their debuts; from fighting and sound design, to music direction and direction, I am proud to be a part of a company who offers chances to young people who deserve them. Working with young professionals who are in the same boat as myself has been a rewarding and creative experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

You've read the story of Jesse James, of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need of something to read,
Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde. - Bonnie Parker

Ryan Nunez, Director

Auditory caution : In the diminutive Havana room it is strictly festival seating.  Thus best to arrive 20 minutes early to secure a perch to the east of centre aisle. The band is downstage right, and sitting too close to these talented and eager players will cause, on occasion, some difficulty hearing the singers' lyrics when they are positioned close to stage left.

Foody recommendation : If you have not had the pleasure of dining at the Havana on their sidewalk deck, do so. A Cuban rice-&-red bean bowl and side salad with avocado vinegarette was scrumptious and only about $12. 


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