Playwright: Book by Ivan Menchel, music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black. At: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $33-$38. Runs through: Oct. 15
"Dying ain't so bad/not if you both go together/a short and loving life/that ain't so bad " croons our heroine. "I won't get to heaven/so why not raise some hell?" declares her paramour. Later they both proclaim, "This world will remember us."
Poets and playwrights nowadays may be wary of saying as much, but these are probably the most romantic words lovers can utter. In history, legend and literature, the most undeniable proof of devotion, allegiance conferring immortality on those professing loyalty thereto, is dying, young, in the arms of your beloved.
This persistant myth explains the curious propensity, amid Depression-era squalor in the southern United States, for the criminal exploits of the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow to be applauded by their very victims. Indeed, what elevates this rarely-revived musical above a simple screen-to-stage adaptation of the 1967 film is its expanded universeencompassing in addition to the progress of the outlaw sweethearts, the dynamics of a society so steeped in poverty and hopelessness that fame achieved by antisocial means leading to an early death in a salvo of bullets represents no threat to adolescents whose aspirations revolve around glamorous movie stars like Clara Bow or swaggering underworld magnates like Al Capone. Brother Buck Barrow and his wife, Blanche, might eke out a living on the latter's hairdressing skills, but in a community where menfolk serving jail time is commonplace and police corruption likewise ubiquitous, armed robbery is as viable a career choice as any. Pastors, too, may preach patience, but promises of a better world to come are nothing compared to the exhilaration associated with nihilistic defiance.
Wildhorn and Black's lengthy scoredrawing sometimes on period string-band arrangements, but just as often reverting to contemporary Broadway melodic tropessometimes risks slowing the momentum, but Spencer Neiman and John Cockerill's direction propel the action in this Kokandy production with the urgency of youthful recklessness and the inevitability of tragedy. The intimacy of Theater Wit's smallest studio likewise awakens our empathy for the frustrations of thrill-crazed marauders born of an envious population affirming their birthright in the anthemic "Made In America"lest we delude ourselves into thinking ill-starred couples confusing notoriety with celebrity is an anomaly restricted to ages long gone.