They Ain’t Bonnie & Clyde, But Could Be Bonnie & Bonnie

Gun & Powder at Paper Mill Playhouse © Evan Zimmerman
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By Bob Nesoff

We’ve said it before, but it repeats saying again: “Why spend the money and time to go to the theater
in New York when you have Broadway quality shows right here in your own back yard?
That holds true, especially with the New York money grab they are calling “Congestion Pricing,” as a
means to get auto drivers to subsidize New York City’s failing and grossly mismanaged mass transit

Driving into Manhattan (and New Jersey is basically an automobile drive society) as of the end of
June will add $15 to you tab getting into The City. For theatergoers that’s a hard pill to swallow. So, look up and see the stars. Why go that route when you have Broadway quality theater in your own back yard?

Jeannette Bayardelle in Gun & Powder © Evan Zimmerman

Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse fills all those gaps. It’s easy to reach from most any place. No
Congestion Pricing and parking, for a small fee, is plentiful. The theater is a plush as any in New York, the stage is as professional as the cast. And even New York recognizes its quality awarding Paper Mill the 1996 Regional Theater Tony Award, the pinnacle of quality and professionalism.

Ok, but what about the shows. What about the “Bonnie & Bonnie” teaser. “GUN & POWDER The Musical” is the mostly true story of the Clarke sisters, born to a black mother and a white man, they can easily pass in the postbellum South still rooted in racial bigotry that consigns non-whites to subservient roles that they can never rise above.

Liisi LaFontaine, Ciara Renée and Malik Shabazz Kitchen in Gun & Powder © Evan Zimmerman

Because of their very light skin, the sisters are able to move about in a society that would never have
otherwise accepted them. But they are on a quest. They want to raise enough money to pay off a large
financial burden owed by their mother.

The show opens with a rousing Southern-style gospel that recurs throughout the show. The sisters,
Mary Clarke (Ciara Renée) and Martha (Liisi LaFontaine) take off on their quest. Working on the assumption that their light skins will open opportunities for them, they head off into the world. Mother Tallulah (Jeanette Bayardelle) gives them a revolver she assumes will be used to protect the girls in the big, bad world beyond their small Southern town.

Aaron James McKenzie in Gun & Powder © Jeremy Daniel

But, as so often happens, especially in stories, the protection turns into an unlawful use of the gun and
they head out, one step ahead of the law. But this is a musical drama and song is interspersed with light
drama. To say the singing and acting is nothing short of fabulous, is putting it mildly.

Unlike Bonnie Clyde, the sisters begin to have differing opinions on how to proceed. While Mary
seeks to work her way into the white world, Martha leans into use of the family revolver. But while they
differ, the strong bond between the sisters is evident throughout the show. Mary is not happy with Martha “packin’ the gun,” while Martha becomes more invested in the power that it provides.
Music is a blend that will become to all tastes as it is grounded in folk, country, blues and a good taste of gospel. Some in the audience were so taken by the music that they stood, clapping, yelling and toe-
tapping to the sounds. We had not seen that since a production of “Jersey Boys” in London’s West End.

Ciara Renée, Jeannette Bayardelle, Liisi LaFontaine, and the Ensemble of Gun & Powder © Jeremy Daniel

While the Clarke’s are sisters first and their strong bond as siblings is obvious, their divergent
personalities begin to emerge. Running from the law, they take refuge in an upscale hotel owned by a
white may, Jesse Whitewater (Hunter Parrish) who is smitten by Mary. Martha heads off in the opposite
direction, connecting to Elijah (Aaron James McKenzie), a former slave working as Jesse’s assistant and
all that such a position meant in those days.

The music is aligned with the action and plays on the balance of what the women desire, conflicted with their racial secret. Both sisters have amazing voices, but Mary shows what could be described as
more of a Broadway presentation while her sister is more of a balladeer.

Liisi LaFontaine in Gun & Powder © Jeremy Daniel

Mary is in love with Jesse, but in the background is the fear that he will discover her true race. Martha
is falling in love with Jesse and the consequences begin to have an obvious and ominous bent.
The remainder of the cast is omnipresent with songs that fill in any gaps in the story. At times the songs
and music take on the feeling of a sabbath service in an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and
some in the audience joked they were waiting for Al Sharpton to come on stage to deliver a sermon.
The ending? We’ll leave that to the audience to find out.

“Gun & Powder” comes on the heels of Paper Mill’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” now on
Broadway, joining other shows that began their nascent stage run such as the wildly popular “Newsies”
and many others.

Next up, beginning June 5 and running through June 30 is the Broadway hit, “Beautiful, the Carole
King Musical.”

As the kid in the TV cereal commercial said: “Try it, you’ll like it.”
Photos courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse


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