By Victoria L. Dammer

Sure as shooting, when the opening number of a stage production has the audience on their feet, cheering with excitement during the first song, you can be certain the rest of the musical will be a blast. Yeah, that’s a lot of cliches’, right?

But the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Gun and Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clarke, is certainly no cliché: it is an outstanding piece of American history brought to life by the hard work of writer Angelica Cheri and music by Ross Baum.

Set in Texas in 1893, Tallulah Clarke (Jeannette Bayardelle) and her daughter Mary (Ciara Renee) and Martha (Liisi LaFontaine) pick cotton alongside other Black former slaves, struggling to survive. Bayardelle’s voice shattered the beams when she performed “Tallulah and Old Betsy.” When the crop picking quota falls short, the group faces the chance of eviction from the property, the only home they have known.

The two Clarke daughters, born with fair skin, plot to “crossover” and start a life of crime to gather the money. After robbing several towns at gunpoint, they become wanted fugitives and hideout in a small town. But their disguise isn’t a secret for long.

Filled with a score of soulful and romantic music, the tempo of each tune spirited the audience to their feet frequently. Most memorable of music was an exceptional piece “Frenchman Father,” sung in The Boneyard night club, with naughtily dressed Fannie Porter (Katie Thompson) and Mary’s future husband Jesse (Hunter Parrish). It was a nitty gritty display of comedy and dance, with Thompson costumed in an emerald outfit straight out of a bordello.

Jesse’s two maids, Sissy (Aurelia Williams) and Flo (Zonya Love) brought howling laughter to the audience, both knowing the truth about the Clarke sisters the moment they laid eyes upon them. Their comical duet, “Dangerous”, brought a thundering round of applause and laughter.

Jessie’s servant Elijah (Aaron James McKenzie), who pines for Martha, brought cries of “WOW” from the theatergoers with his moving rendition of “Invisible.”

La Fontaine’s and Renee’s voices developed more powerful and emotional as the performance continued, and the crescendo in the final “All of Me” caused an eruption of deafening applause rarely seen. Every member of the cast captivated the audience with an enthusiastic performance that will not soon be forgotten.

Gun and Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clarke at The Paper Mill Playhouse. Book and lyrics by Angelica Cheri. Music by Ross Baum.

 

WITH Liisi LaFontaine, Ciara Renée, Jeannette Bayardelle, Aaron James McKenzie, Hunter Parrish, Aurelia Williams, Katie Thompson, and Zonya Love. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher and music direction by Austin Cook. Now through May 5, with a running time of approximately two and a half house including intermission.