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I must admit a bias. Long before way back when, the Pacific Theatre in Santa Cruz audience-tested movies on Tuesday nights. A bunch of us went for free and filled out questionnaires after. We kissed a lot of frogs but also saw Bonnie and Clyde without fanfare. Imagine seeing THAT movie, minus the hype or critical backlash that followed! Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons — brand new. Michael J. Pollard’s runny nose, and Flatt and Scruggs’ score demanding a new pedestal in your pantheon. Plus the shoot-’em-up finale, in which — unlike 98 percent of the movies made before it, and for the first time since Shane — bullets actually hurt people.

So, I’m biased. Or was, actually. The La Jolla Playhouse’s Bonnie and Clyde won’t erase memories of the movie. But on its own terms it’s already a most promising world premiere.

You can often tell when a new musical’s in trouble by how it oversells songs (aka the Clobber ’em with Show-Stoppers Syndrome). Bonnie and Clyde does the opposite. The story’s the star. Only rarely, as when Mare Winningham sings a simple, heart-storming rendition of “The Devil” (“when did the devil take my girl away?”), does the production pause, albeit briefly, to acknowledge a performance.

It’s almost frustrating, in fact, when the Preacher (Michael Lanning) belts the rousing “God’s Arms Are Always Open,” and you can’t thank him with applause. But in Jeff Calhoun’s always-inventive direction, the scene is double-coded: while the preacher and his choir proclaim redemption, Clyde Barrow resumes his life of crime, with no fallback “Plan B.”

Frank Wildhorn’s memorable songs, from rockabilly to gospel, often function like cameos. Parts and snippets recur throughout. They recall the past or — in “The Long Arm of the Law,” which vows to do in the outlaws — prefigure the violent ending. Sometimes a fragment will bully into a scene. By the end of Act One, it’s as if no moment can be private; songs hem in the title characters.

Clyde wonders why he gets second billing: why aren’t they “Clyde and Bonnie”? She says because it doesn’t trip off the tongue. The musical makes a similar reversal, turning the movie inside out. One could almost rename it Bonnie and Clyde and Blanche and Emma and the Sheriff, and Ted, and etc., since Ivan Menchell’s book develops many characters in detail, the women in particular. Act One pits motives against moral consequences (a bit too many, in fact; tightening needed here). Act Two shows the effects of the crime spree on others as well as the duo.

This egalitarian take rebalances and demystifies the story, but it slights the central pair. Did Bonnie Parker embrace crime simply because her “Short Order World” bored her to tears? Was Clyde just a recidivist? It’s clear they want to break away from dusty, Depression-wracked Texas but less clear how they find freedom in their escape.

The movie solves the problem structurally: the couple begins in love but, owing to Clyde’s performance troubles, not lovers. It’s almost mathematical: as their sexual and emotional intimacy grows, so does the number of people closing in on them. As if trying to steer clear of the movie, the musical mentions Clyde’s initial impotence and then drops it. The book conveys the sense throughout that, if the movie did it, the musical won’t — or can’t. But this avoidance behavior results in missed opportunities.

On the plus side, the minimalist production never tries to be cinematic, hopping from scene to scene with TV-commercial speed. Instead the director stresses the book’s inherent theatricality, which frees it from the movie and keeps the stage vitally alive.

Tobin Ost’s set and Michael Gilliam’s lighting build in claustrophobia. The stage is a proscenium-high, chipped-white-paint stockyard, similar to those around Dallas and Fort Worth. Planked panels rise to reveal not cattle chutes but open spaces, though even these feel closed. And by Act Two, the stage picture shrinks, as if a permanent cloudbank rolled in.

One of the musical’s most striking features: vocal authenticity. The accents are so true, it’s as if the casting director asked each auditioning actor to pronounce “Lubbock.” Those who messed up received a curt “thank you.” Wearing Ost’s equally accurate costumes, Wayne Duvall’s Sheriff (though he verges on a cigar-chomping stereotype), Claybourne Elder’s underdeveloped Buck, Mare Winningham’s rock-solid Emma, and especially Melissa van der Schyff’s wonderful Blanche turn West Texas twang into a kind of music.

Neither Stark Sands nor Laura Osnes is a Hollywood star, yet. Their obvious talent and antsy, youthful energy provide motives where the script just offers labels. Their first song together, “The World Will Remember Me,” could be prophetic.

Bonnie and Clyde, book by Ivan Menchell, music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Don Black
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, UCSD
Directed by Jeff Calhoun; cast: Stark Sands, Laura Osnes, Mare Winningham, Melissa van der Schyff, Wayne Duval, Michael Lanning, Chris Peluso, Mike Sears, Daniel Coney; scenic and costume design, Tobin Ost; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Brian Ronan; musical director, John McDaniel
Playing through December 20; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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