By Jane Recker
When musical theatre aficionados consider “feel-good” productions, Bonnie and Clyde, the story of the infamous criminal lovers and their fate, is not the show that leaps to mind. However, Kokandy Productions’ version of the under-appreciated musical at The Theater Wit is just that: a fast-paced, clever celebration of living fast and loving hard.
Based on the history of the real-life lovers, Bonnie and Clyde tells the story of the romance between Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the most amorous pair of outlaws the world has ever seen. Given cause by the Great Depression and fueled by their love, the two live their lives on the run robbing grocery stores and banks, dragging along Clyde’s brother and his wife, Buck and Blanche, until meeting their untimely demise.
The music, by Frank Wildhorn of Jekyll and Hyde fame, is brilliantly realized in all facets. The orchestra seamlessly flows from ‘20’s-jazz-influenced numbers to those more reminiscent of fiery honky-tonk hits and is kept at a perfect level in relation to the singers, thanks to impeccable sound mixing from Patrick O’Brien.
It is, after all, the singing that truly shines in this production. There’s not a single weak voice in the cast; every member is a star in his or her own right. Desiree Gonzalez sparkles as titular lead Bonnie Parker with a shimmery soprano belt that rings movingly clear in “Dying Ain’t So Bad.” In contrast, Missy Wise as Blanche offers a haunting, Patsy-Cline-meets-Norah-Jones alto that stirs hidden emotions in the oft-overlooked ballad “That’s What You Call a Dream.”
If there’s one voice that will go on to true greatness, though, it is that of Max DeTogne as Clyde Barrow. Living up to a role originated by the singing god that is Jeremy Jordan is no easy task. DeTogne meets those demands and then some. Every note from his mouth is perfectly in tune, every phrase artfully crafted, every song an absolute showstopper. His best number, “Raise a Little Hell.” while a rousing crowd-pleaser, still has an earthy, Hank Williams‘-esque quality that pretty-boy Jordan can’t replicate. There are not many other voices in Chicago right now that are this powerful and chill-inducing; the fact that DeTogne’s can be heard on a stage as intimate as Theatre Wit’s is a true gift.
As if the fantastic singing wasn’t enough, the acting is off the charts as well. The chemistry between both pairs of lovers is palpable, and the frenetic, rip-off-your-clothes-after-robbing-a-bank passion between Bonnie and Clyde is nicely balanced by the tender, nuanced, married-couple-love between Buck and Blanche. Sarah Hayes also deserves recognition for her stirring portrayal of Bonnie’s mother, a woman consumed by fear for the safety of her only child.
None of the fabulous work of the actors would be possible without the work of scenic designer Ashley Ann Woods and lighting designer Alexander Ridgers. The pleasantly ergonomic set allows for quick, seamless scene changes with minimal amounts of distracting movement, and is illuminated through a fluid lighting design that can suggest ardor or terror in the flip of a switch. This well-oiled background is what gives the show its momentum and allows the audience to focus on the romances and tragedies before them.
In an industry that has lately prioritized acting potential over the ability to hold a tune, it’s refreshing to see a production that recognizes that it’s possible to have both. While the eventual demise of the lovers is indeed heart-wrenchingly tragic, the journey to that finale is a witty, swinging, love-filled wild-ride that should not be missed.
Kokandy Productions presents “Bonnie and Clyde” through October 15 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.