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‘Bonnie & Clyde’ now a musical at the LJ Playhouse

The rehearsal hall of the La Jolla Playhouse was easily transformed back to the Depression era last week when critics were invited to take a peek at rehearsals for the world-premiere musical “Bonnie & Clyde.”

The minimal props of a storyboard, fake guns and antique beauty salon equipment were only the beginning of the journey. It took off when actors Stark Sands (Clyde), Laura Osnes (Bonnie) and Mare Winningham (Emma, Bonnie’s mother) hit the floor and not only imaginatively brought us into the story, but surprised us with their incredible singing voices.

Music for the show is by Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Don Black. The book is by Ivan Menchell, who explained his process was much like that of most writers: He had doubts that he could pull it off. After considering many of the books written about Bonnie and Clyde, he chose ones with more personal accounts to create the play.

“Like the ones written by Bonnie’s mother and Clyde’s sister, Blanche,” Menchell said. “They were more emotional because these were people so close to these kids. And they were kids. They were 20 years old when they met and 24 years old when they died. I used a lot of what was in the books, and even though this is a musical, our goal was for it to be the most truthful account of Bonnie and Clyde.”

No matter how many times one sees a film or reads a book about these notorious bank robbers, each generation is fascinated by their romance that solidly endured through every fatal decision they made.

Bringing a show with this reputation to the stage is no easy task. Calhoun, whose background includes direction awards and work on “Big River,” “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” Annie Get Your Gun,” “Disney’s High School Musical” and others, was excited to be part of this creative team. He was first enticed by the songs written by Wildhorn.

“And these characters just sing, because the emotions are so epic,” Calhoun said. “The difficult part in creating this show is not to romanticize it or glorify their actions, but rather honor the story and be truthful to the material and respect the victims. Yet we still have to create an entertainment value, so that balance is tricky.”

When Osnes sings the words “You Love Who You Love,” she brings her character alive, and it’s instantly apparent there’s no turning back for Bonnie. Likewise for the men in the ensemble when they begin their rousing song about their guns.

In addition to Winningham’s incredible acting talent, she can hold her own with a note, and the song about losing her daughter will moisten more than one eye in the house.

Calhoun said in his work he likes to leave the imagination to the audience and assures “Bonnie & Clyde” will be an enjoyable show. “The score is really exciting. It’s an adult show, but it also has humor. ... It’s also sophisticated, sexy and very provocative — sort of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ meets ‘Jersey Boys.’ ”

‘Bonnie & Clyde’

Opens: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10

Closes: Dec. 20

Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse

Tickets: From $43, (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org