‘Gun & Powder’ Review: Twin Vigilantes Stake Claim to the American West

The title of “Gun & Powder,” a thrillingly original new musical about mixed-race twin sisters who cut a path through Texas in 1893, refers to their travel essentials: a shrewd parting gift from their sharecropping mother and a touch of makeup to brighten their toasted-ivory complexions.

The legend of Mary and Martha Clarke, who purportedly robbed white people while themselves passing for white, stretches back generations for the show’s book writer and lyricist, Angelica Chéri. She based this rousing Western, now playing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., on her great-great-aunts. (“But you know how family stories do,” sings a gospel Greek chorus of narrators, “so we believe the story is mostly true.”)

With a wide-ranging, powerhouse score by Ross Baum, “Gun & Powder” refashions a classic myth of the American West — white men who fancy themselves above the law — into an irresistible revenge fantasy: Mary and Martha, who go from toiling in the fields to coolly stealing money made off their ancestors’ backs, aren’t outlaws but vigilantes, exacting justice for the crime of slavery.

It’s another triumph that their extraordinary history, directed with vibrant panache by Stevie Walker-Webb, assumes the form of a big-throated American musical filled with star-making roles for Black women.

Mary (Ciara Renée) and Martha (Liisi LaFontaine) seem much alike at first, driven by a shared affection for their mother, Tallulah (Jeannette Bayardelle), whose white lover left her brokenhearted with their daughters and under another white man’s boot. The bond among the three women forms a compelling emotional throughline, and there’s stirring harmony among the actors’ dynamite vocals.

Jeannette Bayardelle, center, with Renée, left, LaFontaine, right, and other cast members. The production features belt-heavy R&B numbers that the cast sends soaring, our critic writes.Credit…Jeremy Daniel
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