Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Hey Ho, Let's Go: 'Four Chords and a Gun' Doesn't Fully Capture the Ramones, but Can't Help but Beguile -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

Four Chords and a Gun
a play about the Ramones
with live music afterwards 
written by John Ross Bowie
directed by Richard Ouzounian
Broadway Playhouse, Chicago
Open run

There are few bands I revere more than The Ramones, but any myth of punk rock purity is just that, a myth.

Johnny was a hard core Republican and seemingly had no compunction over stealing Joey's girlfriend, which prompted years of minimal communication.

Dee Dee wrote many of the band's best songs--"53rd & 3rd," "Commando," "Rockaway Beach"--yet often was a barely-functioning heroin addict, and supposedly supported his habit through gay prostitution.

And Joey was never content to be a hugely influential cult hero; he longed to be a rich rock star.

So after releasing four terrific and--in many ways, groundbreaking--studio albums, none of which charted higher than #49 in America, in an overt attempt to amp up their popularity, the New York bred and based Ramones went to Los Angeles to work with Phil Spector in May 1979.

One of the most famous record producers ever, Spector is heralded as a genius for developing the "Wall of Sound" and working with the Ronettes, Righteous Brothers, Beatles and many others in the 1960s.

He's also known for being something of a nutjob, and is currently in prison for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

His work with the Ramones, on an album called End of the Century came amid these periods and the new play, Four Chords and a Gun--written by TV star John Ross Bowie--expects one to arrive with some degree of awareness of both the band and producer.

For while the well-researched play provides some backstory and biography, its focus is on the dichotomy of the quintessential punk band collaborating with a quirky--and worse--egomaniac famed for creating pop sheen.

Legal limitations presumably prevent any actual songs being heard during the play, so what we really get to see are arguments among the Ramones and between Spector and the band members, principally guitarist Johnny, who at one point is made to record a single chord ad nauseam.

Though it's never been definitively corroborated--as even writer Bowie concurs--legend has it that Spector pulled a gun on Johnny during the recording sessions.

So what occurs in Four Chords and a Gun is a combination of speculation and imagination, along with caricature-like characterizations of Spector and the four Ramones.

I can't say that it ever really, fully "works," but also can't deny that I enjoyed watching it.

Perhaps it's wrong to celebrate how gleefully smarmy Ron Pederson makes Phil Spector--because not only am I convinced that he's a terrible human being, the play depicts him as being rather cruel to Justin Goodhand's (perhaps too) simple Joey--but it's in making Spector an acerbic little weirdo that Bowie's writing most shines, and humor abides.

Cyrus Lane's Johnny struck me as seeming the most like the real person, and James Smith does a nice job as Marky (the only surviving Ramone).

For those who may not know, Ramone was a fictitious surname; none of the members were actually related.

Paolo Santalucia does a stellar acting job as Dee Dee and makes me envision him as more sweet and sardonic than I had formerly, but we don't get much sense of his musical importance to the band (though I don't know how active he actually was in the End of the Century songwriting).

I believe Bowie takes some creative liberties in weaving the Joey-Linda-Johnny love triangle into the timeframe of Four Chords and a Gun, but the likable Vanessa Smythe adds a nice element to the otherwise testosterone-heavy show.

Some may undoubtedly find it odd that after four actors are costumed and coiffed to suitably resemble the Ramones, four different dudes--looking nothing like the band--play a post-show concert, but renditions of "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Pinhead," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and more rock righteously and contribute to my settling on @@@@ (out of 5).

Other than the post-play music itself, little in Four Chords and a Gun will much help non-fans come to know and love the Ramones, and even given the show's narrow focus, any real insights on End of the Century's music are scant.

But few things have ever lent themselves to being blissful without being overthought more than The Ramones.

And though it's not perfect, this is a play--again, not a musical--about them, and I liked it.

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