(Editor’s note: “Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale” is now extended through April 15.)
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” everybody’s favorite quote from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is an axiom that has itself become legendary. In the case of America’s most famous bank-robbing, death-courting lovers, Bonnie and Clyde, pop culture has always preferred myth-making, the best-known such myth being Arthur Penn’s sexy and stylish 1967 movie.
Now comes “Clyde ‘n Bonnie: A Folktale,” which takes the legend, spins it, gooses it, sets it to rollicking song and dance, and wrings it for laughs. It’s essentially a world premiere, getting its first professional production at Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre through April 8, following a 2009 debut, in somewhat different form, at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. (Just to clarify, this is not the big-budget Broadway musical “Bonnie and Clyde” that cratered late last year.)
The premise is that we’re watching a small Texas town’s annual festival honoring Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who were seen by many as folk heroes for robbing banks during the Great Depression, a time when bankers were viewed about the same way they are today. Since it’s a small-town production on the level of “Waiting for Guffman,” the organizer, Martha (Karen Howell), occasionally interrupts the story with commercials for the local hardware store, and the props are deliberately Dollar Store. (Watch for the most pathetic tumbleweed that ever crossed a stage.)
Clyde (J.C. Long) and Bonnie (Laura Floyd) are initially far from lovers. He considers himself an entrepreneur; she wants to be a movie star. They embark on their spree, giddy with adrenaline, along with not-right-in-the-head sidekick Ray (Tony Larkin), Clyde’s brother Buck (Bryant Smith) and Buck’s new wife Blanche (Caitlin Smith), all of whom were real people, but most likely not like they’re depicted here. (Overheated newlyweds Buck and Blanche take “sucking face” to a whole new comic level.)
As enjoyable as all these folks are, the standout character is FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Bart Hansard) himself. Hoover is played here as both a deeply closeted homosexual and utterly clueless, a G-man with an abiding interest in catching crooks and in women’s clothes, not always in that order.
“Clyde ‘n Bonnie” is a wacky, strikingly original work with a book by Hunter Foster (“Summer of ‘42”) and music and lyrics by Rick Crom (“Newsical, the Musical”), directed by Broadway veteran Lonny Price (the recent Stephen Sondheim “Company” revival) and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, who collaborated on “Company.” They’ve created a musical that is small of scale but big of heart, busy to the point of frenetic but in the best way possible, and one that shows off an extremely talented and hard-working cast to the greatest advantage. Like the couple it celebrates, it has what it takes to become legendary.