Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Gun & Powder
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Ciara Renée, Liisi LaFontaine,
and Hunter Parrish

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Why not permit Gun & Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clark, the new folk musical gracing the stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse, to introduce itself through an excerpt from its tone-setting opening song. It is sung by a chorus of ten not fully identified "kinfolk" of the protagonist sisters Mary and Martha Clark: "It been passed down throughout the years. We gon tell it like we heard it from our kinfolk's point of view, but you know how family stories do, so [with sarcasm] we believe it's mostly true. It starts with two extraordinary girls, in Marlin Texas, 1893... Slaves been set free, but not fully free... when enough was enough and our two brave gals made their own way from farm gals, to outlaws, to legend! Here's how it all went down."

In one fell swoop, Gun & Powder: the Legend of the Sisters Clarke (book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri, music by Ross Baum) sweeps us more than a bit away from the earnest but creatively limiting and questionable hagiography which is a trademark of the genre of the noble and struggling victim, and allows for a richer, more fictionalized, more vernacular, and funnier theatre piece than one would likely to have expected. It manages to accomplish this without sacrificing contemplation of serious issues. My reservation is that this two hour and forty-minute musical is overly plotted to the point of bringing about scenes of confusion and disinterest, and would play better with less sturm und drang.

The post-Civil War period during which Gun & Powder is set is a particularly distressful one for the "former" slaves. Their substantial migration to the North has yet to begin. Those emancipated are still mired in the South where they are subject to dreadfully unfair economic regulations and back-breaking physical labor as tenant farmers.

For twin sisters Mary and Martha Clarke, the straw that breaks the camel's back is the cruelty of the landowner on whose plantation cotton farm they work with other members of their family, under the tutelage of their mother Tallulah. Despite Tallulah's assiduous efforts, the dust bowl has brought forth a poor crop and the owner of the plantation intends to remove Tallulah from her cotton farm home because she is unable to make a timely rent payment.

Mary and Martha do have a potential economic perk to consider. Their father, who long ago abandoned his wife and twin daughters, is Caucasian. Consequently, Mary and Martha are able to "pass" for white. They conclude that they had best leave the family farm in order to earn enough money to provide funds to for Tallulah, either to pay off her rent and remain on the plantation or to buy a new home. Tallulah is not only supportive of their plan, but she provides Martha with an oversized pistol which she believes Martha will need to protect herself in a dangerous world. The more genteel Mary arms herself with a powder puff in order to enhance her attractiveness. During a series of uncomfortable exposures to travelling and living in the white world, culminating in their being subject to physical abuse by aggressive and privileged white men, Martha realizes the power which she is afforded by her weapon.

The chorus of Kinfolk continue: "... so Mary and Martha set out on their journey leaving everything behind to do the unthinkable. The audacious. The down-right risky. Pass for white. Armed with Mama's gun Ole Betsy, and a whole lotta questions. Where will they go? What was waitin' for "em on the open road? Will they make it out alive?"

The sisters eventually find themselves in a surreal bawdy saloon with fancy hotel, The Boneyard. It is owned by the monied, in-with-the-dishonest authorities, Jesse Whitewater. Jesse is quickly smitten with Mary and offers the outlaw sisters protection. Similarly smitten with Martha is the gloomy and tormented Black bartender, Elijah.

The cast assembled for Gun & Powder is extraordinary. I cannot recall ever being more impressed by an introduction to a musical theatre soprano than I am by Ciara Renée, who appears as Mary Clarke. Not only is she totally dedicated to the complexities which Mary must navigate, but the strength, purity, unbridled dedication, and bravery of her singing are totally stunning and not to be missed. Liisi LaFontaine also brings excellence to her vocal performance in the role of Martha. She successfully carries the heavy dramatic weight of Gun & Powder's central dramatic conflict. Jeannette Bayardelle as Tallulah completes the integrated vocal prowess of this musical trio during the musical's final sequences.

Jesse Whitewater is written with an uncomfortable ambiguity. However, Hunter Parrish sings and plays the role with aplomb. Furthermore, Parrish brings a star quality to the part, gracing the role with the looks and sexual appeal of a young Brad Pitt. Aaron James McKenzie also sings the cover off the ball as Elijah, but unfortunately, his performance suffers from overly grim direction. Rather than winning our sympathy, McKenzie's vocally strong but unmodulated over the top anger is a downer. Still, his vocal prowess is undeniable. In the second act as a better-adjusted Elijah, McKenzie duets with LaFontaine on the particularly lovely "Under a Different Sun" and supplies one of the musical's loveliest pleasures.

As devastatingly hilarious hotel maids Sissy and Flo, who are not as perspicacious as they believe themselves to be, but still insightful and audacious, Aurelia Williams and Zonya Love manage to be at one with their delightful roles. Also importantly present is the white saloon show soloist, Fannie Porter, whose laments address her frustration with men begin with her father. Fannie's songs feel out of place in this "legend" of Black empowerment. It is an uncomfortable, thankless role which is likely intended to address women's issues which transcend race.

All the Kinfolk add to the story. However, let me represent the rest here by mentioning the redoubtable Tony Perry who lights up the stage with his enthusiasm and standout movement.

Credit the book and lyrics to historian Angelica Chen, whose family legends are the basis for the libretto. In the score by Ross Baum, there are any number of strong songs, although it is difficult to be very specific on a first hearing of this particularly lengthy score. I did feel that a drum beat is too loudly and repeatedly overused at times, with the result of obfuscation of melody. Even if it provides a welcome African beat, it would be more effective if employed with more subtlety.

The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, largely in red and black, is clever and effective. Director Stevie Walker-Webb has directed each scene effectively, but there is simply too much material here to maintain a strong focus. Some of Tiffany Rea-Fisher's choreography is overly stylized and difficult to follow in its plotting (train sequence), and even overwrought ("Mary's Nightmare").

Most importantly to serious theatregoers, Paper Mill Playhouse is currently offering its audiences the thrilling opportunity to share in its development of Gun & Powder, a highly anticipated, serious and relevant new musical with superlative performances which may never be duplicated again. It is not to be missed.

Gun & Powder runs through May 5, 2024, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit

Book and Lyrics by Angelica Chéri
Music by Ross Baum
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb
Choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher

Cast: in order of appearance:
Jeannette Bayardelle: Tallulah Clarke
Ciara Renée: Mary Clarke
Liisi LaFontaine: Martha Clarke
Jason Sweettooth Williams: Mr. Billingsley/ Carmine/ Percy/ Bank Teller
Mary Claire King: Gertrude/ Wealthy Woman
Katie Thompson: Lillian/ Fannie Porter
Reed Campbell: Frank/T.J./ Cowboy/ Sheriff
Adam Roberts: Mr. Patterson/ Cowboy
Francesca Granell: Mrs. Patterson/ Wealthy Woman
Tiffany Mann: Bank Customer
Hunter Parrish: Jesse Whitewater
Aurelia Williams: Sissy
Zonya Love: Flo
Aaron James McKenzie: Elijah
Additional Ensemble: Carrie Compere, Aaron Arnell Harrington, Arnold Harper II, Malik Shabazz Kitchen, Rayshun LaMarr, Tony Perry, Christine Shepard