If you love groundbreaking musical theater, I suggest you navigate away from this page for just a few seconds to snap up tickets to Signature Theatre’s Gun & Powder while you still can. (But please come back).
The world premiere musical, with book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri and music by Ross Baum, is hands-down one of the best musicals I’ve seen in the past decade, with vocal performances from Broadway veterans and locals alike that will leave you breathless.
Gun & Powder closes February 23, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Gun & Powder opens in the cotton fields of Marlin, Texas in 1893 where—although slavery had been abolished for nearly three decades—life for African Americans working the fields for white sharecroppers was much the same. A chorus of “kinfolk,” sets the stage for the story of Mary and Martha Clarke, light-skinned twins born to a black field worker, Tallulah (the worship-worthy Broadway veteran Marva Hicks) and a white father who quickly took his leave.
When a poor harvest leaves Tallulah and her kin hopelessly indebted to a merciless sharecropper who threatens to kick them off the land they’ve farmed their entire lives, Mary and Martha hatch a dangerous plan to set off into the “wide open plains” where they might “pass” as white women and secure more lucrative jobs. But aboard the “whites only” train car (where they do “pass,” in the witty tongue-in-cheek number, “Just Passing Through”,) the sisters stumble upon their true vocation. With a little charm—and Tallulah’s pistol—the Clarke sisters spark careers as notorious robbers and outlaws.
The misadventures of Mary and Martha Clarke are more than just a fun twist on a classic Western plotline. The sisters are based on writer and lyricist Chéri’s real-life great-aunts. Chéri recounts flipping through a photo album as a young girl, filled with photos of her African American relatives, and suddenly landing on a photo of two “white women” (actually light-skinned black women)—who, according to family lore, were notorious bank and train robbers. Years later, Chéri pitched the plotline to her classmate, Baum, for their Masters’ thesis in musical theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the pair were off and running.
From the very first lines of the show—belted out in Rayshun LaMarr’s gorgeous baritone as part of the chorus of “kinfolk”—two things are made clear to the audience: first, as with most family “histories,” the Clarke’s may be partly (or wholly) the stuff of myths—cultivated by each generation from only a seed of truth. Second, if the rich, powerful, frankly stunning voices of each of the kinfolk setting the scene are any indication, be prepared for one of the most jaw-droppingly talented casts you are ever likely to hear.
Baum’s inspiring score infuses a wide range of musical influences—from African American spirituals to R&B to plucky Broadway patter songs—and, together with Chéri’s lyrics, succeeds where so few musicals do in creating a broad range of wholly distinct songs that you can leave the theater humming. From the African step dance-inspired Cotton to his keening love ballads (“Invisible”, “All of Me”) the score exhibits rare, exhilarating, talent.
Gun & Powder’s cast, led by acclaimed director Robert O’Hara (Broadway’s Slave Play), is something of a Broadway “dream team,” including several members of the original Broadway and national touring companies of Hamilton. Emmy Raver-Lampman (original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler in the national tour) masters the art of the slow burn as Martha, who transforms from a dulcet-toned obedient daughter in the first act to the blazing belt of a renegade outlaw in the second. Mary, played by recent breakout-star Solea Pfeiffer (whose first role out of college was Maria in the Hollywood Bowl’s West Side Story and has since starred as Eliza Schuyler in the national tour of Hamilton) shares a similar arc to her sister’s, displaying remarkable vocal restraint in her innocent first-act romantic ballads, only to unleash a truly awe-inspiring, powerfully beautiful, voice in the second (“All of Me”).
Pages could be written on the depth of talent in this cast, but I would be remiss not to mention Yvette Monique Clark and Awa Sal Secka, in the smaller roles of Sissy and Flo—small town saloon-owner and robber-baron Jesse’s (Dan Tracy) kicked-around and much abused servants. Clark and Secka, two black women who “ain’t one to gossip” nor “start no trouble,” are the first to see through the Clarke sisters’ “powder” to claim them as ‘one of their own’ (“Those lips?….That hair?…Those hips!”) as their white boss Jesse woos and prepares to wed Mary, on the belief she is one of his own. Even before they even open their mouths—commenting from the sidelines on Jesse’s love-blindness with their knowing “mmmm-hmmms,” Clark and Secka have the audience eating out of their hands. The pair goes on to masterfully deliver some of Baum and Chéri’s most playful, witty material in “Dirty Shame” and “Dangerous.”
Signature’s Gun & Powder is a unique opportunity to see one of the most remarkable pieces of musical theater in recent memory performed by local favorites, and Broadway’s up-and-coming stars. Simply put, don’t miss it.
Gun & Powder. Book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri and music by Ross Baum. Directed by Robert O’Hara. Choreographer Byron Easly, Scenic Design Jason Sherwood, Lighting Design Elex Jainchill, Costume Design Dede Ayite. Sound Design Ryan Hickey. Featuring: Yvette Monique Clark, Wynn Delano, Christian Douglas, Marva Hicks, Amber Lenell Jones, Rayshun LaMarr, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Kevin McAllister, Da’Von T. Moody, Crystal Mosser, Solea Pfeiffer, Awa Sal Secka, Eleanor Toff, Dan Tracy, Donald Webber Jr., Kanysha Williams. Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.