“Gun & Powder”: the word “spectacular” was made for this rambunctious musical

Ciara Renée, Jeannette Bayardelle, Liisi LaFontaine, and the Ensemble are singing on stage.
Ciara Renée, Jeannette Bayardelle, Liisi LaFontaine, and the Ensemble of Gun & Powder © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Zonya Love and Aurelia Williams are wearing maids outfits.
Zonya Love and Aurelia Williams in Gun & Powder © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

I am more than pleased to tell you that Paper Mill Playhouse’s current production, Gun & Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clarke is a knockout of a show with a solid book by Angelica Chéri. The score by composer Ross Baum with lyrics by Chéri encompasses musical styles which include soulful ballads, raunchy saloon numbers, and gospel-tinged choral pieces. What The Great Gatsby, now in previews on Broadway as of this writing, was to Paper Mill in 2023, Gun & Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clarke is in 2024 — and I look forward to seeing this show on Broadway in 2025. 

The story takes place in post-Civil War Texas, where Tallulah Clarke (Jeannette Bayardelle) is a sharecropper, picking cotton with her twin daughters, romantic Mary (Ciara Renée) and hard-headed Martha (Liisi LaFontaine). When the landlord demands a $400 “rent payment” to make up for a shortfall in one day’s pickings, the girls decide to strike out on their own and earn money to save their mother’s home. Tallulah gives them the gun her grandmother owned, “Ole Betsy”, for protection. The girls set out, using pressed powder makeup to further lighten their already light skin — a “gift” from the father who deserted them — and learning how to act like the white majority society around them (“Just Passing Through”).

Passing for white, Mary and Martha rob their way across central Texas. The two, passing-for-white women robbers (“Gun and Powder”), are so successful that tales of their exploits spread and a $50,000 reward is offered for their capture. When they arrive in the forgotten town of Sweet Caroline, the Clarke sisters attract the attention of saloon and hotel-owner Jesse “JW” Whitewater (Hunter Parrish). Jesse and Mary take an instant liking to each other, while the ever-wary Martha tries to pump black bartender Elijah (Aaron James McKenzie) and maids Sissy and Flo (Aurelia Williams, Zonya Love) for information about Jesse. 

Jesse and Mary’s relationship heats up (“Outlaw’s Serenade”) and Mary accepts Jesse’s marriage proposal (“Real Woman”). When the girls receive a letter from Tallulah pleading for them to come home, Martha is shocked to hear that Mary is getting married and refuses to go home (“Mama’s Name”). After the wedding, Martha takes refuge within the town’s black community while Elijah courts her (“Under a Different Sun”). Martha learns some damaging information about Jesse and goes back to try to convince Mary to leave him.

The cast, under the direction of Stevie Walker-Webb and choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, is uniformly wonderful. LaFontaine and Renée are two distinct individuals, yet they unite as sisters, and with Bayardelle’s Tallulah present a strong, proud family unit. Parrish displays seductive surface charm as Whitewater; McKenzie’s Elijah is a cautious yet proud, determined, and deeply loving Black man; and both men appear to be perfect matches for the sisters they fancy.

The two ensembles — the all-Black Kinfolk and the all-white Townspeople — provide melodic exposition to the story of the Clarke sisters, with the individual members of both ensembles playing many minor roles. Outstanding among them is Katie Thompson as saloon singer Fannie Porter, whose two big numbers — “Frenchman Father” and “Mary’s Nightmare” — provide bawdy comic relief. Aurelia Williams and Zonya Love as the maids Sissy and Flo were audience pleasers in their two numbers, “Dirty Shame” and “Dangerous”.

Beowulf Boritt’s sets, lit by Adam Honoré, allow the action to move freely from a cotton plantation to trains and train stations, the town of Sweet Caroline, and the wide open spaces of south central Texas. Connor Wang’s sound design adds to the realism of the story, while Emilio Sosa’s costumes capture each character’s place in antebellum society (although one wonders how Mary and Martha obtained the fancier clothes they wear at the start of their larcenous career). Austin Cook leads a lively orchestra as they underscore the varied emotions of the story.

According to the playbill, Angelica Chéri took her inspiration for Gun & Powder from a legend passed down through the generations of her own family. She has done her foremothers proud with this production. Gun & Powder looks to be another hit from Paper Mill Playhouse, so I urge you to get your tickets now while you still can. Travel on down a rambunctious trail of larceny and adventure with the sisters Clarke at Gun & Powder!

Gun & Powder: The Legend of the Sisters Clarke is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 5, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.