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BWW Review: Stellar Cast Brings the Ramones to Life in Psychological Bio Play FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN


BWW Review: Stellar Cast Brings the Ramones to Life in Psychological Bio Play FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN

End of the Century was the album that skyrocketed the Ramones into the public eye, and in FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN writer John Ross Bowie delves into the strain and tension that came with its recording sessions. The collaboration between the Queens, New York band and infamous producer Phil Spector examines how The Ramones were torn apart by their own habits and Spector's divisive management.

Where many biopics and bioplays might attempt to show the best aspects of their subject matter, FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN doesn't shy away from the messy history of one of punk rock's most influential bands. Under the direction of Richard Ouzounian each member's issues are presented in a fictionalized account that leans heavily on the truth behind the people behind the rockstar personas.

As the self-described 'happy family', the Ramones are portrayed by a strong cast of theatre veterans. Joey (Justin Goodhand), Johnny (Cyrus Lane), Dee Dee (Paolo Santalucia) and Marky (James Smith), clad in the classic ripped jeans, shaggy hair, and leather jackets that defined The Ramones, present each member as an individual despite their homogenous appearances.

Goodhand is the lead singer who doesn't lead, playing second to Lane's Johnny in all aspects of his personal and band relationships. All of Johnny's neurotic compulsions are brought forward to ensure the character shows the real person respectfully. As the leader of the band, Lane is a slouched, straight-faced Johnny with a mean streak highlighted through his actions onstage and ongoing narrative exposition. Lane's ability to show Johnny's nature makes him unlikeable, and the shock factor of a punk rocker with morals that conflict with many of the movements' ideals is managed well throughout.

As the rhythm section of the band, Santalucia and Smith have the best chemistry onstage and provide the bulk of the show's comedic relief. As Dee Dee, Santalucia explores the addict's demons in a moving drug-fuelled monologue near the show's climax. Throughout the show his ongoing chatter, confusion, and general goofiness makes him a sweet presence, and Smith's Marky functions as the narrator but isn't a major influence throughout. Rather, Marky's relationships with the other Ramones, primarily Dee Dee, is what defines him as a character in the story.

The primary antagonist driving the story is Phil Spector (Ron Pederson), whose Elvis-inspired outfits and short stature make him a punchline. Despite his appearance, Pederson's Spector is a textbook case of an abuser as he targets each member of the band to the 'perfect album' and redefine the Ramones. Pederson portrays the unstable, gun-wielding producer with believable menace, which aligns with his current status in the real world as he serves a prison sentence for second-degree murder.

The sole woman in the narrative Linda (Vanessa Smythe) is a fiery figure, dating Joey and constantly trying to motivate him to exist outside of his neurosis. Smythe's sharp Queens accent (dialect coach Diane Pitblado's work is most prevalent in Linda) grounds her portrayal of the inspiration behind one of the more well-known Ramones songs.

The creative design of FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN is nothing short of stunning, using multi-functional set pieces and numerous crates, records, and instruments to frame the stage (set and lighting design by Nick Blais). The use of a hole in the brick wall at the back of a set to project video clips of the Ramones, text, and a great use of pre-recorded video of Pederson with live vocals to simulate separation caused by a vocal recording booth (projection design by Alex Williams).

The inclusion of a 20-minute concert at the end of the play comes from good intentions but feels out of place given the conclusion. The band (consisting of Reid MacMaster on vocals, David Kirby on guitar, Ben Miller on bass, and Michael Carrillo on drums) played a loud, fast set that did the Ramones' music justice, but felt out of place in the traditional theatre.

Regardless of a viewer's knowledge of the Ramones, 1970s punk rock, or Phil Spector, FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN is a gripping and psychological look into substance, emotional, and physical abuse within the music industry. At the time End of the Century was recorded, Spector's methods weren't completely unusual but with context and hindsight it's easy to understand why this writing and recording process was the beginning of the end for both the producer and band.

FOUR CHORDS AND A GUN is produced by Starvox Entertainment.

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