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He Says: NYCC Encores! Soars Up With the Surprisingly Dark Mack & Mabel

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This is quite the show that comes knocking sometime “after midnight” at the New York City Center Encores!.  “Open up, damn it!” he bellows, and boy, are we happy to let this mand and this surprising show in. It’s just so charming and effervescent, at least for the first little bit, but then we start to notice a few shifts in tone and some treacherous side steps that make one sit up and take notice.  They are subtle, I will say, and not presented with any kind of glare, which is wise. We begin two notice that Mabel, the charming young leading lady of the silver screen, is prone to down a few pre-show pills, something akin to the “Valley of the Dolls” or what Judy Garland famously was known for. And we shiver a bit, knowing how this kinda story ended. So in the flurry of vaudevillian dramatics that get this well crafted revival of the 1974 Broadway musical, Mack & Mabel, up and running, a darker piece starts to step forward from the rear of the studio stage. It sneaks up, surprising us, and as one particularly astute audience member was overheard saying on the way out, “I definitely forgot about all the drugs and murder“, and she’s just so darn right. With all the fun in Act One and all the talk about Happy Endings throughout, this beautifully crafted production about the dawning of the age of talkies doesn’t walk that walk at all, but digs into the darkness, whether we like it or not.

Cast 1
The cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

With a compellingly dark and descending book by Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie) and charmingly effervescent music & lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!; Mame; La Cage Aux Folles), the NYCC’s production of Mack & Mabel starts out cuter than a button, and then slides down into stereotypical Hollywood darkness. It’s no wonder that back in 1974 when the dichotomy of a show premiered on Broadway starring the astounding team of Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, it received eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, but did not win but a one. And then quickly closed after only eight weeks. The songs were widely praised by the critics, but the themes of heroin and murder tap dancing inside this infectious pernicious vehicle might have been just a bit hard to fathom and embrace, particularly with a leading man character that was as gruff and rough as sandpaper.

Lilli Cooper and Cast
Lilli Cooper and Cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It all begins with a when “Movies Were Movies” set-up that dives in backwards into time, lead by the loud and aggressively hard-to-like Mack Sennett. Basking in the spotlight of the glory days of his 1911 Keystone Studios, film director Sennett, powerhoused by the magnetic Douglas Sills (Broadway’s War Paint) is a man who likes to yell “Action” and see the people around him, including his long-time hungry leading lady, Lottie Ames, dynamically played by the sassy Lilli Cooper (Broadway’s Tootsie), scramble to attention. Inside this revised version by Francine Pascal, the flashback focus is squarely on the tumultuous relationship between comic low-end film director Sennett and his newest discovery, silent movie star-in-the-making Mabel Normand, played to perfection by the amazingly talented Alexandra Socha (Broadway’s Head Over Heels) who he nabs off the food delivery line and delivers up onto the screen for the world to embrace. “What the eye could see, the camera sees better.” I would add to that quote the big wide stage of NYCC as it sees just as clearly. Socha captivates every moment she walks into the room giving depth and flirtatious fun with every line and tune. She breathes life into the wide eyed strong minded Normand, who Sennett cast in his early comic “two-reelers”, and never gives it up, even in the darkest of moments.  Sennett would put her through some pretty strict numerical paces, giving the former Miss Waitress from Flatbush no access to her “integrity as an artist“. That is until it all goes bust, and she stands up to him before falling down the rabbit hole, to no one’s surprise.

Michael Berresse and Cast
Michael Berresse and the Cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The surprises comes later, when Mabel, one of the screen’s biggest stars, starts to slow dance to bigger and better things in the arms of director William Desmond Taylor, gorgeously embodied by the equally stunning Michael Berresse (Broadway’s The Cher Show). His offer to her of just a little bit of dust is just the cherry on the top of the sundae, pushing Mabel into the deep end, and Sennett to not act how he, reminiscently wishes he had. He forges on with a blustery force, replacing her with his ‘Bathing Beauties’ and then the infamous ‘Keystone Cops’, cementing the interpersonal detachment and the decline of the heartbroken Mabel. There’s no amount of dancing, done just spectacularly in said number by Cooper and a band of gorgeously talented dancers, that can tap your troubles away. That is clear, although the staging of that one particular number by director/choreographer Josh Rhodes (Kennedy Center’s Tommy) is the one and only half wonderful and messy moment in an otherwise clean and briskly engaging show. The pantomime of infidelity trips up the tap dancing line, muddling the emotion by mixing it all up too much. Yet we watch on, alongside the handsome and adorable newspaper writer turned screenplay author, Frank, played with old school charm by the lovely Ben Fankhauser (Broadway’s Newsies) as Mabel’s life takes a downturn. He seems to be the one good guy of the group who really has Mabel’s lovely back in mind, but he’s powerless to douse the flame of love and desire that lives so strongly in both Mabel & Mack‘s hearts. If I were Mabel…..Frank would be my rescuer. Just saying…

Major Attaway and Cast
Major Attaway and Cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are so many meticulously joyful moments in Mack & Mabel, played out well and strong on the bare bones inventive Encores! set. Designed with a clear vision by Allen Moyer (Encores’ Hey, Look Me Over!), with flashy fun costumes by Amy Clark (Kennedy Center’s The Music Man), graceful lighting by Ken Billington (Broadway’s Chicago), and a well constructed sound design by Kai Harada (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), historic and iconic numbers find just the right edge. “Hit ‘Em On the Head“, performed by the skilled Sills, Major Attaway (Broadway’s Aladdin) as star Fatty Attaway, and Evan Kasprzak (Broadway’s revival of Cats) as fellow performer Freddy, hit the mark with precision. There’s a level of smart play that elicits all that we love about those crazy old silent films, playing a delightful homage to that movie time moment, thanks to the gorgeous work by music coordinator Seymour Ed Press (Broadway’s Dreamgirls), music director Rob Berman (Broadway’s Bright Star) and spectacularly sounding Encores! Orchestra.  There is just nothing better hearing a full orchestra deliver at this high level of expertise.

Cast 2
Alexandra Socha (seated) and Cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The engaging and celebrated story of Mack & Mabel, based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass, delivers the goods and deserves the dime change left over as a thankful tip. I had no idea going in that this feisty flower of a show would end with Mabel’s tragic death from tuberculosis in 1930 after her handsome scandelous lover was shot by a jealous husband, but Happy Endings are for the movies, I guess, and not for every Broadway show in town. It’s a dark twisted journey back into Hollywood lore that pleases at every turn by all the spectacularly dynamic performances the enrich this story. It’s too late to get your butt to Mack & Mabel, I’m sorry to say, as I saw it on its last day of performances, but just know that Encores! is doing their thing most marvelously and if the next two shows are anywhere near as good as this one, you shouldn’t miss one number. I will be away for the next show, Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life(directed by Victoria Clark and featuring Kate Baldwin and Brian Stokes Mitchell), which is just so sad (although I’ll be in London seeing my full share of theatre, so don’t feel too too bad for me), but I personally can’t wait to see Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori’s Tony Award-winning Best Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie with Ashley Park (Broadway’s Mean Girls) in the Jazz-aged lead. That will be one of those ‘can’t miss’ events, so get thee to Encores!and get ready to applaud.

Evan Kasprzak, Alexandra Socha, and Cast
Evan Kasprzak, Alexandra Socha, and Cast of Mack & Mabel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Book Reviews

Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents Four Award-Winning Musical Theatre Writers Who Turned to Writing Books

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“Live From The Hotel Edison Times Square Chronicles Presents”, is  filmed live every Wednesday from 5 – 6 in the lobby of the iconic Hotel Edison, before a live audience.

In this episode T2C’s publisher and owner Suzanna Bowling talks with Douglas J Cohen, Stephen Cole ,Alison Louise Hubbard and David Spencer, musical theatre writers, who all have books out.

We are so proud because the show and our guests are now featured on the TV screens in the lobby and the hotel rooms.

I am so grateful to my guests Douglas J Cohen How To Survive A Killer Musical: Agony and Ecstasy on the Road to Broadway, Stephen Cole Mary & Ethel… and Mikey Who?, Alison Louise Hubbard The Kelsey Outrage, The Crime of the Century A historical true crime novel and David Spencer The Novelizers: An Affectionate History of Media Adaptations and Originals, Their Astonishing Authors—and the Art of the Craft

Thank-you Magda Katz for videoing and creating the content to go live, the audience who showed up to support us, Rommel Gopez and The Hotel Edison for their kindness and hospitality.

You can catch us on the following platforms:

Pandora:

https://www.pandora.com/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/PC:1001084740

Stitcher:

https://www.stitcher.com/show/1084740

Spotify:

Amazon:

https://music.amazon.com/podcasts/e3ac5922-ada8-4868-b531-12d06e0576d3

Apple Podcasts:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/live-from-the-edison-hotel-times-square-chronicles-presents/id1731059092

We hope to see you there on April 24th. We will be announcing our guests tomorrow.

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Celebrity

The Glorious Corner

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G.H. Harding

COUGAR HEAT — (Via Ultimate Classic Rock) John Mellencamp has a clear message to fans planning to attend his shows: behave or just stay home.The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer – known for such timeless tunes as “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” – recently hit the road for his 2024 Live and in Person tour. In a conversation with The Washington Post, Mellencamp detailed what he expects of his fans.

“I do expect etiquette inside of the theater, the same way you would at a Broadway show,” the rocker explained. “My shows are not really concerts anymore. They’re performances, and there’s a difference between a performance and a concert.”

To that end, Mellencamp demands a certain amount of decorum from his audiences.

“Look, I’m not for everyone anymore,” the singer admitted. “I’m just not. And if you want to come and scream and yell and get drunk, don’t come to my show.”

Mellencamp’s directive on manners comes after a series of notable outbursts. In March 2023, the singer told concertgoers to “keep your f—ing mouth shut,” during an acoustic portion of the show.

Last May, an audience member yelled “play the f—ing music” after Mellencamp offered criticism of the U.S.A.

”If these people don’t shut the f–k up I’m just going to leave, OK?” Mellencamp told the crowd. “Because I’m not used to this crap. Look, guys, if I wanted to play in this type of drunken environment, I’d play outside or I’d play in an arena.”

Then, last month, things reached another cantankerous height. At a show in Toledo, Ohio, Mellencamp became outraged at a heckler in the crowd who told him to “play some music.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing, you c–ksu–er?” the rocker responded. “Here’s the thing, man. You don’t know me. You don’t f—ing know me. Hey Joe, find this guy and let me see him after the show.”

Mellencamp later stormed off the stage, seemingly cutting the performance short. However he eventually returned to play a few more songs.

I am a fan of his music and his art, but I’ve negative stories about him for decades. Tommy Mottola used to manage him, then Randy Hoffman and there’s a long list of people who will NOT work for him. Great music though; from the heart.

Mottola in his memoir said Mellencamp was the type of person who if he won  million dollars, would fume why it wasn’t two-million! I know people like that!

“Human Wheels” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.

SHORT TAKES — Mixed reviews for The Outsiders on Broadway which opened last week in NYC. Angelina Jolie is one of the producers. It’s a great book by S.E. Hinton and even though Theatermania panned Coppola’s movie it stills stands as a classic. Check out their review: https://www.theatermania.com/news/review-the-outsiders-becomes-a-soggy-broadway-musical_1736986/Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman interviewed Woody Allen for The Observer ten years ago. His just-out, new interview with Allen is a classic. Take a read: https://www.showbiz411.com/2024/04/17/exclusive-woody-allen-on-marriage-kids-his-great-films-influence-on-movie-making-writing-a-novel-epstein-and-not-retiring … If a new Woody-interview wasn’t enough, Tatiana Siegel in Variety touts the new films coming from ageless auteurs Spielberg; Scorsese; Scott; Coppola; and 93-year old Clint Eastwood. Breathtaking for sure. Take a read: https://variety.com/2024/film/news/martin-scorsese-frank-sinatra-biopic-dicaprio-jennifer-lawrence-1235973769/

Micky Dolenz and Alice Cooper at Coopstock -photo by Valerie La Rue

Micky Dolenz joined in with Alice Cooper for “School’s Out” at Coopstock last weekend in Arizona. Coopstock is Cooper’s annual charity event … Director Quentin Tarantino abruptly dropped plans for his last movie The Movie Critic; which was to star Brad Pitt  …

CBS, which inexplicably cut the Billy Joel at the Garden special 1/2-hour too early last weekend (and during Joel playing his signature “Piano Man” no less) gets a repeat tonight … And, remember the Sullivan Street Playhouse where The Fantasticks ran? Check this out: https://www.villagepreservation.org/2012/01/13/sullivan-street-playhouse-gone-but-not-forgotten/ … RIP Dickey Betts … Happy Bday Marc Eliot!
NAMES IN THE NEWS — Dan Zelinski; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; David Letterman; Robert Morton; Janice Zegers; Jane Rosenthal; Frankie Crocker; Deb Caponetta; Jimmy Fallon; Kelsey Ledbetter; Chuck Scarborough; Mark Bego; Kent and Laura Denmark; Bruce Haring; Greg Evans; David Kramer; Joe Malone; Charley Crespo; Jodi Ritzen; Tone Scott; Anthony Noto; and BELLA!
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Broadway

Barry Manilow, Bruce Sussman and More At The Museum of Broadway As Harmony Is Honored

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On Thursday, April 18th Barry Manilow, Bruce Sussman, The Comedian Harmonists Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey, as well as Company members including Chip Zien, Kate Wesler, Kyla Stone, Matthew Mucha, Stuart Zagnit, Zak Edwards, and more TBA will be at The Museum of Broadway to unveil a brand-new window display dedicated to the Broadway musical Harmony. Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman brought the long-forgotten story of The Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group of six young men whose fame was abruptly cut short by the rise of Nazism, to life in the 2023 hit Broadway musical Harmony.

The Museum of Broadway will honor their story with a dedicated window featuring exclusive items donated by Manilow and Sussman, and historical items dating back to the 1920s.

The program will include a special a cappella performance by the OBC Comedian Harmonists.

Harmony, featured an original new score by legendary Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award® winner Barry Manilow with lyrics and book by Drama Desk Award Winner, Bruce Sussman. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Warren Carlyle (The Music Man, Hello Dolly!), this timely and captivating rags-to-riches story lost to history came to dazzling life with a sensational cast of Broadway favorites.

Based on an unbelievable true story, the musical told the tale of the most successful entertainers you’ve never heard of. . . until Harmony. In the 1920s and 30s, The Comedian Harmonists sold millions of records, made dozens of films, and sold-out the biggest theaters around the world. Their heavenly harmonies and musical comedy antics catapulted these six talented young men from singing in the subway tunnels of Berlin to international superstardom.  What happened next was the story of Harmony.

The female-founded award-winning Museum of Broadway is the world’s first-ever permanent museum dedicated to the storied history and legendary artists, creators and stars of Broadway musicals and plays, past and present. Offering unrivaled “backstage” access, the Museum of Broadway goes behind-the-scenes to show guests of all ages how a Broadway show is made from conception to curtain call.  A one-of-its-kind entertaining and educational celebration of Broadway for the theatre enthusiast and insider alike, the Museum of Broadway transports visitors visually through centuries of time.  Experience a stunning, ever-evolving curation from the 1700s-present day one dazzling, unforgettable exhibit, costume, prop, rendering and rarity at a time. Through each piece, the Museum of Broadway honors the legacies of those who paved the way for today’s Broadway and the next generation of theatregoers and creators.

Founded in November 2022, the Museum of Broadway highlights more than 500 showstopping and hidden gem productions across three floors of exhibits.  Open seven days a week and welcoming thousands of guests weekly from all over the world, the museum also offers free educational programming, special events with your favorite Broadway casts and creatives, a membership program, merchandise from your favorite shows, and so much more. A portion of proceeds from every ticket sold is donated to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Be sure to follow @MuseumofBroadway on all social channels for the latest artifact drops, special offers, events and happenings and visit themuseumofbroadway.com to complete your perfect day on Broadway.

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Out of Town

“Women of the Fur Trade” Soars (even with all those controlling men looking down on them)

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Portraits of distinguished men stare down at us, surprisingly, as we enter the space. I did not expect those domineering men’s faces peering at me, with three rocking chairs out front giving off a feeling of waiting and wanting, comfortably and leisurely, for movement without too much proactive action. It’s a captivating portrait highlight, filled with power dynamics and control, that ushers in the Women of the Fur Trade, presented strongly and dynamically by Native Earth Performing Arts. Rocking back and forth with a hypnotic clarity, the three emerging women play a quoting game with glee, one that I would definitely lose without a doubt. The ladies in fur and formal period form engage in a manner that makes us want to lean in with wonder and curiosity. We watch them prattle and dabble on with a modern air of compellingly fun dialogue and gossip, wondering where this is going, and how the essence and themes will be delivered.

With an eccentric electric energy, dropped and messaged in by a basket post, the play, written with a strong sense of self and history by Frances Končan (Space Girl), unleashes ideas and captive arguments about rebellion and colonialism that are drenched in historic fact and laced with symbolic fiction. The play intends to find meaning and understanding of that particular time and place in Canada’s dark treatment of the indigenous population, and the women, representing different fractions, find themselves, trapped, for reasons unknown, in a fort on the banks of the Reddish River in Treaty One. The dividing politics and approaching violence hang over their heads like those black and white male faces, pressing down and inflicting themselves in every engagement, as the three causally and with a modern vernacular that is impressively smart, unpack themes of racism, misogyny, and the challenge of remaining united while having differing views. Its comedic delivery and contemporary colloquialisms keep the space light, delivering empathy and care inside ideas without shame or defensiveness.

Jonathan Fisher and Jesse Gervais in Native Earth Performing Arts’ Women of the Fur Trade. Photo by Kate Dalton.

It’s quite a challenging premise, met with sharply constructed success by Končan, to find pathways through windows and disappearing doors without sounding preachy or heavy-handed. Yet, the playwright manages the space with perfect formulations and structure, giving an intelligent space on the banks of the Reddish River to discuss advancing British troops, confederation, and whether the hot nerd Louis Riel, played beautifully by Jonathan Fisher (VideoCabaret’s New France) is truly worthy of the undying adoration of a young Métis woman, Marie-Angelique, played brilliantly by Kelsey Kanatan Wavey (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s The Rez Sisters). Or whether the momentarily pregnant Cecilia, portraying a nervous married settler woman to perfection by Cheri Maracle (Firehall’s White Noise), is correct to think that Riel’s assistant, Thomas Scott, played hilariously well by Jesse Gervais (MTC/Grand’s Clue), is the actual true heartthrob of the pair (I’m leaning towards Gervais, even if he is, ultimately, the bad guy of the lot). Their portraits hang above their heads proudly, setting up a battle of more than just one superficial dimension, while the free-spirited Ojibwe, Eugenia, perfectly and powerfully portrayed by Lisa Nasson (Stratford’s R+J), watches on with amazement, knowing that they both have a lot to learn and understand about these men. As do we.

The inescapable reaction to their history and predicament hangs heavy and true, like the watchful male oppression made clear within the subtle and wonderful set design by Lauchlin Johnston (RMTC’s The Secret to Good Tea), with strong lighting by Jeff Harrison (Arts Club’s Hand to God), a spot-on projection design by Candelario Andrade (Bard on the Beach’s Julius Caesar), and a clear sound design by composer MJ Dandeneau (RMTC’s YAGA). This lively historical satire of determined survival and cultural historical inheritance plays out like a romantic comedy with an untimely preference for twenty-first-century slang pulled through the dark waters of racism, oppression, and colonialism. The women speak of undying and unknown love of rebellious strangers and symbolic heroes. But out front, the two men travel and engage in a strong game of sideways Cyrano with rollie-bags, giving signals as to where they stand. They are a hypnotic pair, drenched in fascinating dynamics of conflictual power, which ultimately leads to one of the funniest and sharpest scenes of cross-haired love and mistaken admiration that I have seen for a long time, thanks to Wavey and Gervais’s impeccable timing, physicality, and perfect comic delivery.

Cheri Maracle and Lisa Nasson in Native Earth Performing Arts’ Women of the Fur Trade. Photo by Kate Dalton.

The irreverent and pointed humor is as clever as can be, finding empathy and care in their comic humanity, and timelessness. The three actors portraying these women are perfect in their rocking situation sometime in the year “eighteen hundred and something something.” They excel in all aspects, guided most wisely by the original direction of Renae Morriseau (“Angela’s Shadow“), with revival director Kevin Loring (Battle of the Birds/playwright) coming in to assist in the last month of this production. The energy of the well-crafted piece, with disarmingly clever costuming by Vanessa Imeson (A Company of Fools’ Hamlet), hilariously and wisely unpacks history, religion, and rebellion, inside a framework of teenage girl gossip and lust, and it works most mystically and spiritually in a manner I never expected.

This was one of the only shows I, unfortunately, missed at the Stratford Festival last summer, and I was so pleased to be given a second chance to take it all in. But I had no idea how funny and charming this play actually is, and how accomplished this production and its cast & crew would be. I’m not sure I was able to fully take on and take in every symbolic plot point or focused line. It’s clear that the three represent differing polarities that could cause a break in the camaraderie of these three women. Their coming together against overwhelming historical odds while being trapped and controlled by the men of the times is the contemporary point that needs to be taken. But some of the details and points of storyboard friction were lost on me. Or was I looking too deep within?

The written colonial representation of our history, including Louis Riel, Thomas Scott, and the unseen, but much-discussed John A. MacDonald, needs a whole lot of rewriting in our history books to even come close to the reality. Končan does a fantastic job trying to present forward an alternative with hopes of expanding our understanding of how our complicated Canadian history was not as neat and wholesome as we were taught in high school. Being a card-carrying status indigenous person, the platform that Končan has dutifully and skillfully created is a welcome wonder, filled with unquestionable laughter and sharply aimed shots, fired from weapons more powerful than a few random sticks in the woods. Women of the Fur Trade is as precise and clever as one could hope for, and a wonderfully clever, entertaining adventure into some dark Canadian history. Don’t try to resist. Just go if you can, even if it means climbing out a window, and join these well-crafted characters on the banks of the Reddish River in Treaty One Territory to laugh and fall hopelessly in mistaken love with a pretty perfect piece of theatre and enlightenment. Every dog will bark in support.

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Off Broadway

Gun & Powder is a Powerful Piece of Musical Theatre

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Over at Paper Mill Playhouse there is a new powerhouse musical that opened last night. Gun & Powder is the true story of Mary and Martha Clarke, African American twin sisters who, pass as white to settle their mother’s sharecropper debt. In the meantime they learn to love who they are, celebrate their history and bloodline.

The direction of this show by Stevie Walker-Webb features a superb cast, a compelling story, and possibly one of the best new scores to come along in awhile, sung to perfection.

Liisi LaFontaine Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Set in 1893 Texas the show is centered on the book writer and the lyricists Angelica Chéri great- great aunts Mary and Martha Clarke (the incomparable Ciara Rene and Liisi LaFontaine who sing and act these roles flawlessly). Born into slavery, their mother Tallulah Clarke (Jeannette Bayardelle) had the girls with a Caucasian man so they are light skinned. When they are penalized for not reaching their quota of cotton, they will lose everything unless they come up with $400. Mary and Martha decide to leave posing for white. Martha is given a gun by her mother and when she finds the power that gun affords her, the two ended up robbing to get ahead. They ended up in a saloon owned by Jesse (Hunter Parrish) and Mary falls in love and ends up marrying him, but that is when the real action begins.

Sonya Love and Aurelia Williams Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There are also the two housemaids of the Salon, Flo and Sissy (Sonya Love and Aurelia Williams) who almost steal the show with their attitude and killer vocals in “Dirty Shame”. Also standing out are Aaron James McKenzie as Elijah a black servant who falls in love with Martha and sings “Invisible”. His duet with LaFontaine “Under a Different Sun” is in a word, gorgeous. The fabulous Katie Thompson, plays Fannie Porter a white saloon singer who sings “Frenchman Father” and makes you really listen.

Katie Thompson Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The star of this show is Chéri’s lyrics and composer Ross Baum’s music. From Jazz, to Gospel, to Spirituals to blues, to Broadway, this score soars. It is like going to musical theatre church. From the “Prologue”, to “Wide Open Plains” until “All of Me,” this score captures you heart, mind and soul. The orchestrations by John Clancy, just enhance the whole experience.

Hunter Parrish Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s choreography keeps the show in a profound transformation.

The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is simple yet effective. The lighting design by Adam Honor really makes the set come to life and the costume design by Emilio Sosa keeps us in the period.

Gun & Powder and Chéri and Baum are a show and a team of writers to keep your eye on. I predict big things for both.

This musical is fresh and exciting and if it doesn’t make it to Broadway next year I would be surprised.

Make sure you get your tickets. You will not be disappointed.

Gun & Powder: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr, Millburn, NJ until May 5th.

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