Bonnie and Clyde were outlaws. But they were something else: lovers. And that fact sticks with Corey Ralston, director of the Visalia Players musical "Bonnie & Clyde" at the Ice House Theatre.
"This is one of the greatest love stories," he says, "a true 'Stand By Your Man' moment. They would rather face death than be separated by prison walls."
Ralston nabbed the rights to the recent Broadway musical, which played briefly in New York in 2011, for the central San Joaquin Valley premiere. We caught up with him via email to talk about the production.
Question: Tell us about the show.
Answer: "Bonnie & Clyde" is about two Texas outlaws during the Great Depression. The musical follows them from children with dreams of stardom and infamy to the actual two-year crime spree they went on before being ambushed and killed in 1934.
When did local rights for the show become available? Did you jump at the chance for a Valley premiere?
Rights for this show have only been out a little over a year. I believe we are the third theater in California to put on the show. There has been a Southern California and Northern California premiere within the last six months. And now the Central Valley premiere. It took hearing only one song from this amazing score to get me hooked. I knew it was something I had to direct and as soon as possible. It is a great opener for the Visalia Players' new season.
The "romantic outlaws" theme has long been a popular one in American culture, and there's a natural tendency to identify with characters on the run who are fighting against authority. Yet in "Bonnie and Clyde," there's more than burglary involved — there's murder. As director, do you consider the title characters sympathetic? How do you deal with that ambiguity?
I and the lead characters in this show have done a lot of historical research from watching documentaries to reading books that thoroughly detail the run of Bonnie and Clyde. We all seem to be in agreement that Bonnie and Clyde were victims of circumstance. They grew up dirt poor and wanted a better life. Criminals during that time were revered as heroes to the American public. They were robbing the very banks that foreclosed on most Americans' houses and farms. To me there wasn't much ambiguity ... Clyde could not fathom going back to a corrupt prison system where he was raped every day and forced to endure abuse from prison guards. I firmly believe not one audience member will be cheering for the lawmen in this play.
What's the hardest part of this production to stage?
The show takes you on a journey through many, many locations and it does so seamlessly. The biggest challenge was how to represent each location with minimalistic set changes. The use of projectors and lightning-fast crew members handling cars and furniture has helped us attain that goal.
Tell us a little about your Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie is played by the beautiful Becca Coffey. She is a Fresno State graduate and Exeter native. Her enthusiasm for this role and production has made her a joy to work with. She has a gorgeous voice and a sympathetic take on Bonnie Parker.
Jonathan Wheeler plays Clyde. He has been performing in Fresno for many years and gladly made the trek to Visalia for the opportunity to play such an iconic character. His portrayal of Clyde Barrow is very likable and layered and he has a fantastic voice, too.
"Bonnie & Clyde" had some great pre-Broadway reviews, but once it got to New York, it struggled to find an audience and closed quickly. Do you think it got a raw deal?
I was shocked to find out that "Bonnie and Clyde" closed on Broadway after only a month. It took one lousy review from The New York Times to scare producers into closing. And I suppose that is how Broadway operates. I think Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes had near-perfect performances. The two runs it has had in California have been very successful, and I hope we will have the same luck.
Do you have live musical accompaniment or prerecorded?
I always use a live band in my musicals. I think pre-recorded music does not engage the audience as much as live music does.
"Bonnie & Clyde" is the perfect musical to bring your male friends to. The iconic story of the outlaws and the bloody shootouts make for a very exciting evening. The show has definite cross appeal and will most likely bring a diverse audience back to the theater.
"Bonnie & Clyde," through Aug. 24, Ice House Theatre, 410 E. Race Ave., Visalia. www.visaliaplayers.org, (559) 734-3375. $16, $8 students in advance, $20, $10 students at door.