For those who came of age around 1967, when Arthur Penn’s iconic film “Bonnie & Clyde” hit movie screens, the sight of Faye Dunaway as Bonnie Parker (looking impossibly chic in a poor-boy sweater and beret), and the easily dashing young Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, her outlaw lover, gave crime a dangerously fashionable allure, even if the notorious pair were ultimately gunned down in the most graphically bloody way.

‘BONNIE & CLYDE’
Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Kokandy Productions at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $33 – $38
Info: (773) 975-8150;
www.kokandyproductions.com
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

Desiree Gonzalez as Bonnie and Max DeTogne as Clyde in Kokandy Productions’ Chicago premiere of the musical version of “Bonnie & Clyde.” (Photo: Evan Hanover)

Decades later, the twisted romance of these two Depression-era “celebrities” became the subject of a musical by composer Frank Wildhorn, lyricist Ivan Menchell and writer Don Black. The show had a stunningly brief run on Broadway in 2011, and watching the altogether sensational Chicago premiere now being presented by Kokandy Productions, it is impossible to understand how it could have failed to become a hit. Here, with its scorching score laced with the sounds of rockabilly, blues and gospel, plus an exceptional cast of powerful vocalists also possessed of serious acting chops and a volcanic little band perched above the stage, it is enthralling from first note to last. And you might well find yourself hoping that Wildhorn and his collaborators will make a trip here to see how their work can shine, and perhaps to consider Chicago a tryout site for a future musical.

Director Spencer Neiman’s choice of Desiree Gonzalez and Max DeTogne as Bonnie and Clyde (the eternal order of the names in this pairing is the source of a very funny argument in the show) is a match made in heaven, with Tia L. Pinson brilliantly setting the story in motion as the young Bonnie, and Jeff Pierpoint as the poor, restless, juvenile delinquent Clyde. But all the supporting cast members bring their characters to vivid life — from Nathan Carroll as the golden-voiced Preacher; to Cisco Lopez and Missy Wise as Clyde’s sadly ill-fated brother, Buck, and sister-in-law, Blanche, to an ensemble that includes Sarah Hayes, Brittney Brown, Erin Creighton, Ann Delaney, Jacob Fjare, Jon Patrick Penick, Maisie Rose and Jonathan Schwart.

We first meet the girlish Bonnie (Pierson, a petite woman with a beautiful voice and natural sparkle who easily morphs into both an older church lady and a police official, and who should be at the top of any list to play Celie in a future Chicago production of “The Color Purple”) in rural Texas. Bright and fearless, with a doting mother (the always excellent Hayes), she is sassy, determined and smart as a whip, and lives on dreams of becoming a Hollywood star like Clara Bow. Clyde, whose family’s farm has been undone by the Depression (and the actions of much-despised banks), already has a rap sheet for theft and has been brutalized by the local police, and he has made Jesse James his role model.

In a perfect theatrical sleight-of-hand the older incarnations of these two soon come into view, with the first meeting between the adolescent pair (at the diner where Bonnie is a waitress) instantly suggesting their fiery, impulsive natures and potent sexual chemistry. Of course the real downward spiral begins when Bonnie risks all and helps Clyde make a break from prison, after which they hit the road, and Clyde ends up shooting and killing one innocent person after another on a cross-country crime spree.

Gonzalez’s subtle, insightful portrayal of Bonnie expertly captures her character’s complex, poetic nature with all its striving, narcissism and self-destructiveness. And DeTogne, with his wiry physique and gaunt face, not only looks like a starved Depression soul, but displays just enough charm, cockiness and anger to keep Bonnie at his side, even if he bristles at her “top billing” in the media. The two are meant for each other in all the wrong ways. But of course that is the story’s power.

Conductor-keyboardist John Cockerill has done a flawless job of musical direction, with Simeon Tsanev (on fiddle), Cesar Romero (guitar) and Mark Linley (percussion) digging right into the score’s “roots,” and Michael J. Patrick’s top-notch sound design making it ring out. (The failure to include a song list — a frequent occurrence in area theaters these days — should be remedied by whoever decides such things.)

Ashley Ann Woods’ fractured, ragtag, down-and-out set (lit by Alexander Ridgers) conjures the 1930s with artful ease, and Robert S. Kuhn’s costumes are perfectly homespun rather than vintage Hollywood.

Cisco Lopez as Buck and Missy Wise as Blanche in Kokandy Productions’ Chicago premiere of the musical “Bonnie & Clyde.” (Photo: Evan Hanover)