Friday, August 12, 2016

Review: Going 15 Rounds with Frank Wildhorn and Emerging Unscathed

Book by Ivan Menchell
Lyrics by Don Black
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Through August 13 2016
Presented by Studio 18 Productions
at 12th Ave Arts
1620 12th Avenue
Seattle WA 98122

A caveat: I may not be the best person to review this show. I've been known to describe its score as "the Frank Wildhorn score I hate the least." 

It's great to see a production where the book, the score, the cast, and the rest of the creatives all work in harmony to produce a thing of beauty. This, alas, is not that production. Instead, it's one where the company does, well, the very best they can with what's been given them. 

Most of Wildhorn's shows are light on plot, character, and coherency, and full of bombast. And when I say "full," I mean over-long.

To B&C's credit, it is light on the bombast; rather than the overblown PHANTOM-manqu√© of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL and JEKYLL AND HYDE, or the chaos of WONDERLAND, the bluegrass and country inspired sound of the show gives it a more intimate scale that serves the story and the performers better. 

Unfortunately, what does not in any way serve the performers is the book. The story manages to be too wordy and too skeletal at the same time, with much less there than meets the eye (or the clock). Every character can be expressed in about two sentences - not because they're so clear and well-drawn, but rather, the opposite. How this cast managed to build any internal life at all for "Hates the Banks and Glorifies Outlaws" and "Wants to Be a Star and Falls for Anything in Pants who Charms Her," as the title characters may be called, is a wonder. Not to mention brother "Torn Between Loyalty to Brother and Wife," er, brother Buck, or "Good Christian Woman in an Impossible Situation," or as we know her, Blanche. Even shallower is "High School Boyfriend turned Jealous Deputy," also known as Ted Hinton. (I suspect the thanklessness of this role may have been one of the final straws in bringing Louis Hobson back from Broadway to better roles and to development of far more interesting works in Seattle.)

The idea of the glorification of the outlaw during hard times likely has a genuinely interesting show lurking in it. And it might be as a 2:20 version of this show, with a better book and judicious editing of the music.  But it's not this one.

Struggling with the material, the cast takes some hard punches, and comes through to be much better than the show itself. The guys are very good; the women, even better. 

Zack Summers has recently been strong in large ensembles (ArtsWest's AMERICAN IDIOT) and small (Centerstage's RING OF FIRE); here in his first lead, he has the charm and bravado, not to mention the vocal power and subtlety, to really make Clyde's songs work. There's a can't-win aspect to the role, in that you have to dislike a lot of things about the character and sympathize at the same time; in some ways Zack may be too likable for some aspects of that - as were Jeremy Jordan and Stark Sands before him - but I don't think audiences would get behind a less charming or less attractive Clyde. Brian Pucheu does a fine job with Buck as well, though there's even less to work with.

As Bonnie, Jasmine Jean Sim makes you want to grab her and shake her about a dozen times during the show - which, I guess, means she's nailing the naivet√© and vanity of the character. And she sings the living crap out of it. Kate E. Cook gets to sing my favorite number in the show as Blanche, "That's What You Call a Dream"... and totally, utterly does it, and the role of Blanche, justice.  

The rest of the cast has even less to work with, even Randall Scott Carpenter as lawman Ted, and they manage to grab the theatrical jello and get their arms around it.

BONNIE & CLYDE is Studio 18's first production. The energy that partners Matt Lang (director) and Alia Collins-Friedrichs (producer) bring to it, and the fine musical support by the ensemble led by Travis Frank, show great promise. I look forward to seeing what more interesting show they choose for their next outing - so the cast can triumph with the show, rather than over it.

One final thought: given the closeness of the black box theatre, I hope the cast didn't experience what I did during Act II. I feel like I just sat behind a piece of audience performance art. Last time I checked, "drinks are allowed in the theatre" is not the same as "share a burger and fries (including reaching across to dip the fries, scraping the pickles off your burger, and constantly crumpling napkins), reading the net on your phone for the last 25 minutes of the show, and kissing, cuddling, and chatting." I have never hoped so hard a cast couldn't tell what was going on in the audience. Patti LuPone would have shoved the burger down their throats, the phone up their butts, and told them what to kiss...

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