GUN & POWDER Shoots Straight — Review


Ciara Renée | Photo: Evan Zimmerman

Juan A. Ramirez
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April 15, 2024 7:10 PM

For those left craving more reclamations of Black country culture after Cowboy Carter, the new musical Gun & Powder is an American tall tale and terrific musical Western. Based on family histories passed down to book-and-lyric writer Angelica Chéri (who works with composer Ross Baum), it gives Ciara Renée and Liisi LaFontaine two of the richest vocal roles in memory, playing two sisters who pass as white in order to bail their mother out of trouble in 1893 Texas. They’re surrounded by an equally on-voice ensemble in director Stevie Walker-Webb’s locomotive production at Paper Mill Playhouse.

The story moves with the excitable ebbs and flows of a relative’s retelling: Tallulah Clarke (Jeannette Bayardelle) is a Black sharecropper whose daughters Mary (Renée) and Martha (LaFontaine) are a mixed memory, in both sight and feeling, of the white man who promised love then abandoned her years ago. When her boss comes up with a dubious reason to lock her in debt, the brasher Martha hatches a plan for her and Mary to make the kind of quick, legal money only white women could get in assorted jobs throughout Texas. Mary, the more nervous of the two, agrees and the two set off with a pistol provided by their cautious mother. 

Renée and LaFontaine have a fast and easy chemistry – it’s a good thing because, once the plot kicks in, the production becomes a breakneck sequence of songs and old-school tableaux. A great one: on the train out of their small town, against a painted Old West backdrop are silhouettes of LaFontaine polishing her gun and Renée powdering her face.

Ciara Renée and Liisi LaFontaine | Photo: Evan Zimmerman

If the material rarely cuts deeper than those striking silhouettes, the production ensures they’re aesthetically appropriate, absolutely indelible, and bursting with lively music. Beowulf Boritt’s set, aside from a multi-use saloon set, evokes an illustrated storybook, romantically lit by Adam Honoré; and Emilio Sosa’s elegant period costumes still allow the cast room to effectively perform Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s pulsating choreography.

And Baum’s score paints a cohesive, near-comprehensive sonic picture of Black American music, with soul, blues, and R&B cohabiting with banjos, spirituals, and Big Easy trumpets. Renée gets the bulk of the solos, and her voice smoothly fills out every genre, tempo, and mood thrown at her. It’s an unsurprisingly excellent performance that nevertheless feels like a revelation for the undervalued performer. But, really, the entire ensemble might be the best 

But back to the story, of which there is plenty. Once in the big city, the sisters discover a quicker way to earn cash once they successfully defend themselves from attempted attackers. Playing up a damsel-in-distress double-act before whipping out the steel, they hold up banks, barbershops, and bordellos, earning a name for themselves as outlaws before landing at a saloon owned by the handsome Jesse Whitewater (Hunter Parrish).

Whitewater calls their bluff and semi-entraps them at his nearby hotel while romancing Mary. This upsets Martha’s plan, especially when a letter from home lights a fire under her to keep to their mission. The sisters’ growing divide is overseen by Elijah (Aaron James McKenzie), Whitewater’s lovelorn valet, and his housemaids Flo and Sissy (Zonya Love and Aurelia Williams, wringing humanity and vocals out of comic relief). And that’s just the first act. If the amount of characters seems to negate the ability for any of them to stand out, the insanely talented cast quickly dispels this, each principal becoming a memorable addition to Chéri’s larger tapestry.

Jeannette Bayardelle | Photo: Evan Zimmerman

A renegade elation runs through her book, delighting in its Black characters’ ability to hoodwink society however and wherever they can. A chorus of “kinfolk,” outside of not just the action, but seemingly time, provide commentary that’s contemporary and contemporaneous; a family history of Blackness passed down and over.

Chéri has a gift for theatricality, beautifully realized by Walker-Webb’s staging. What they create — along with the insanely talented assemble — is an often breathtaking musical as big as its ambitions, and as fun-loving as its gun-toting heroines

Gun & Powder is in performance through May 5, 2024 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. 

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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