Bonnie and Clyde were real public enemies. The new Broadway musical Bonnie & Clyde is really its own worst enemy.
The show, which opened Thursday night, is an old-fashioned musical with a tidy narrative arc - but it bogs down in little second-half reprises to a belaboring degree.
It starts off with a great scene - the spectacular ambush of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934 when sharpshooters smothered their car in bullets. Then it ends wearily with a whimper, as the murdering bandits drive unknowingly to their deaths in a scene preoccupied with lovey-dove music and devoid of a scintilla of suspense. They may as well be driving to their wedding. (Which, in fact, they never had.)
And that's how the show goes - we're left with good intentions but bad follow-through, at least on the part of director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun and some of the creative team, but certainly not the knockout cast. Bonnie & Clyde is entangled in its own musical format, watering down the storytelling and, with it, the tension.
That's the last thing it needs, because our collective experience with the two do-badders comes from the tense, entertaining and wildly popular 1967 Arthur Penn film that starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as a half-mad, half-madcap version of the criminals.
The real Bonnie and Clyde were mostly small-beans crooks who also robbed banks, murdered people along the way and had better press buzz than they deserved, spiked by their living together in sin. In our culture, though, they've come to be Arthur Penn's slickeroos.
The musical is much more about their romance than their outrageous lust for crime, and it has sweet aspects: characters on opposite ends of the plot sing duets across the stage, because what everyone wants from love is the same, whether they're gun-toters or God fearers. Some of the scenes between Bonnie and Clyde - fine-tuned portrayals by lissome Laura Osnes and hunky Jeremy Jordan, each in superb voice - are solid and endearing, particularly one in a bathtub.
Frank Wildhorn's (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and many others) music is easy and tuneful; I heard people humming it in the restroom line at intermission. Don Black's (Sunset Boulevard) lyrics are too ripe with the stuff everyone is supposed want out of love and living, and they do too little to move the plot along, but they are nicely written. Ivan Menchell's book begins well but then runs in place; the first act leaves you wondering when these kids are going to show the criminal bravado we've been conditioned to expect.
If ever a show was enlarged and lifted by its cast, Bonnie & Clyde is it. The shapely and sure Osnes, who looks great in orange or probably anything, is a Bonnie complete in her submission to guy she knows can do no right. Jordan made a name in the world premiere of Newsies at Paper Mill Playhouse in upstate New Jersey and in a few weeks he hits screens nationally in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton; here, he's a punk as believably committed to love as he is to mayhem.
Claybourne Elder and Melissa Van Der Schyff, as Clyde's brother and sister-in-law, not only sound great but show a real '30s presence - people then would have called them each dolls. Louis Hobson is the cop who knew Bonnie in school in Dallas, and has loved her probably from then on.
With Tobin Ost's rugged Western scenery and costumes, plus Michael Gilliam's particularly evocative lighting, Bonnie & Clyde also has the right look. Would that the trappings of a musical - at least these particular trappings - had given it the right feel.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Bonnie & Clyde is playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York.