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So much great talent on stages. So many great new plays. So many new musicals that are not particularly well written.
That’s the state of American theater writ large in Arlington this winter, as Signature Theatre debuts the musical Gun & Powder. There’s lots in this show’s DNA to love, with direction by Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) and Solea Pfeiffer and Hamilton original ensemble cast member Emmy Raver-Lampman starring as the real-life biracial twins Mary and Martha Clarke, respectively. Hearing Pfeiffer and Raver-Lampman sing Ross Baum’s jazz-inflected Americana tunes comes with all the thrills of a high-end pops concert.
If only the onstage sisters had better dialogue and lyrics to tell their story.
Gun & Powder is the grad school pipe dream of Baum and playwright/screenwriter Angelica Chéri, who met at New York University’s musical theater program. About five years ago, Chéri told Baum about her great-great aunts, Mary and Martha, who in photo albums always looked too white to be blood relations.
In fact, the sisters passed as white, and the family passed down stories of their scams and bank robberies. In Gun & Powder, the sisters turn to crime after the landlord orders an exorbitant cotton harvest from their mother, Tallulah Clarke (Marva Hicks). The musical’s best between-song moments come early, when the Clarke sisters set out in search of an honest living and are shocked that white train passengers allow them to sit down. These early scenes deserve a bit more savoring, and maybe a song about donning costume designer Dede Ayite’s puffed-sleeve blouses and high-waist skirts, one that’s directly connected to the story and gets the ensemble involved.
Baum and Cheri employ the non-white members of the ensemble as a Greek chorus they call “The Kinfolk.” At the top of the show, seven outstanding singers belt a gorgeous gospel lament while mimicking the movement of cotton pickers. Later on, Yvette Monique Clark and Awa Sal Secka return to chew scenery as hotel maids who are onto the Clarke sisters’ schemes, but for long stretches of time, the Kinfolk disappear.
Pfeiffer won raves last fall for her portrayal of Evita at New York City Center; she has a rich, resonant alto that seamlessly leaps a full octave, and her voice neatly winds below and above Raver-Lampman’s colorful soprano. (Baum did the marvelous vocal arrangements himself.) Yet with all due respect to these leading ladies, they spend too much time alone onstage in Gun & Powder singing about their love lives, sorrows, and “too dark” powdered skin.
While Act 1 does end with a good old-fashion intermission cliffhanger, the musical’s second act gets bogged down with romances that are problematic as cast, as directed, and as written. To borrow a quote from former City Paper theater critic Bob Mondello, it’s as if Signature invested so heavily in its leading ladies, they ran out of money to buy them boyfriends.
Dan Tracy plays Jesse, a wealthy Texas hotel owner with the all the charisma of a bored, racist concierge. Love may be blind, but why create such a strong, interesting female character like Mary Clarke only to have her fall for an average Joe Weasel? It’s a waste of time and not believable.
Donald Webber Jr.’s Elijah at least seems kind, but he can barely make eye contact with his co-star, and eye contact is the match that ignites fireworks, in real life or onstage. On YouTube, performers Jelani Alladin and Stephanie Umoh sing Elijah and Martha’s love duet, “Under a Different Sun,” with more convincing ardor than Raver-Lampman and Webber can muster.
“Why don’t we find a place where our love can be free, where you can hold my hand in the light of day?” is typical of Chéri’s not-so-complex lyrics, but the music exemplifies Baum’s facility with memorable melodies, clever orchestrations, and subtle key changes. That YouTube clip was filmed at a Ross Baum song showcase at Lincoln Center, which bodes well for his career. Gun & Powder has been workshopped at SigWorks, Theater Latté Da in Minnesota, and at a National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival. Signature’s Gun & Powder premiere feels like another workshop step along the cross-country development road. (In addition to a script workshop, Jason Sherwood’s shallow stage and projection-heavy set for Gun & Powder should get a rethink.)
It’s a credit to Washington audiences that the entire Gun & Powder run has sold out. Signature audiences are smart, know their stars, and are willing to experiment. But the creative team shouldn’t let box office numbers stop them cold, not when this musical still has a chance to spark.
To Feb. 23 at 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Sold out. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.
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