BWW Review: GUN & POWDER at Signature Theatre
As a reviewer you generally find something wrong with a production no matter how much you enjoy it. Signature Theatre's latest World Premiere Musical Gun & Powder is a rare breed of show because it is literally a perfect theatrical experience. Under the fantastic direction of Robert O'Hara it features a superb cast, a compelling story, and possibly one of the best new scores of the season to be heard here or anywhere else.
Angelica Chéri's book is set in 1893 Texas and is centered on her real life great- great aunts Mary and Martha Clarke (Solea Pfeiffer and Emmy Raver- Lampman). The two African-American ladies were born into slavery. Their mother Tallulah Clarke (Marva Hicks) had the girls with a Caucasian man so they are light skinned. As slaves were penalized for not reaching their quota of cotton, Tallulah is going to be fined $50 for falling under that quota by one bail. If she can't get the money she will have to leave the plantation. Mary and Martha hatch a plan that involves leaving the plantation, posing for white and robbing banks. Martha is toting a gun given to her by Tallulah. The pair procures the cash and sends it back to Tallulah on the plantation. That's the main set up. The story also includes a seduction between the saloon owner Jesse (Dan Tracy) and Mary which eventually leads to marriage and some very smart house help that knows the two ladies are African-American from the get go.
As good and as strong as Chéri's book is, it's her lyrics paired with composer Ross Baum's music that takes Gun & Powder from being really good to being truly terrific. From the first notes of the "Prologue" to the final notes of the finale "All of Me" the score ranges from spirituals to all out Broadway razzamatazz. The later is demonstrated in Fannie Porter's (Crystal Mosser) star turn called "Frenchman Father". Other musical delights include the butler Elijah's (Donald Webber Jr.) lament "Invisible" and "Wide Open Plains" which is sung by Pfeiffer, Lampman and Hicks. The on point ensemble is very lucky because they get to sing Baum's almost angelic sounding vocal arrangements eight times a week. The score is enhanced by John Clancy's (assisted by Scott Wasserman) inventive and driving orchestrations. The ten piece orchestra under the direction of Darryl G. Ivey sounds considerably larger.
You probably know director Robert O'Hara's wonderfully twisted work from Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company His direction for Gun & Powder is full of warmth, heart and genuine emotion. There are some O'Hara trademarks though. The two housemaids Flo and Sissy (Awa Sal Secka and Yvette Monique Clark) bring some sass and attitude in the song "Dirty Shame". It's just the right amount of comedy amidst the serious story.
Byron Easley's choreography kicks in "Frenchman Father" and "Cotton".
Solea Pfeiffer and Emmy Raver- Lampman as the Clarke sisters literally shoot up the MAX with two of the strongest performances I've seen in a while. They truly carry the show.
Marva Hicks' performance as the never give up mother Tallulah is another of the show's many highpoints. She isn't onstage a lot but when she is you notice.
Donald Webber Jr's Elijah is the portrait of what many slaves went through during that time. His duet with Lampman entitled "Under a Different Sun" is simply gorgeous.
Dan Tracy exudes all things evil as Jesse and the master of the plantation.
A shout out goes to ensemble member Eleanor Todd as she continues her rise to being a full blown star of DC theatre. Here's hoping she gets a lead at Signature soon. Hint, hint.
Projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson' work compliments Jason Sherwood's simple but very effective set.
Simply put, for one of the best theatrical experiences you will ever have go see Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Mark my words Chéri and Baum are the next big writing team for musical theatre. Go see this show and say "I knew them before they were famous". You won't regret doing so.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty five minutes with one intermission.
Gun and Powder runs through February 23, 2020 in the MAX space at Signature Theatre which is located at 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA. For tickets, click here.