Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Four Chords And A Gun brings back The Ramones

Fans of The Ramones — and shame on you if you don’t count yourself among them — should get to Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre to see Four Chords And A Gun before it ends on April 28.

I was curious when I first read about the play and was pleased to have been invited to Tuesday’s opening night performance. While not without some flaws — just like the four musicians, producer Phil Spector and girlfriend Linda Danielle who are portrayed in Four Chords And A Gun — they’re more than offset by its rough-edged charms.

Most deserving of praise is the script, written by John Ross Bowie, who’s best known for playing Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. The dialogue has a sharp and often humorous edge and is frequently delivered in rapid fashion, just as you’d expect from The Ramones.

While Four Chords And A Gun is centred around the tension-filled 1979 Los Angeles recording sessions for the End Of The Century album with Spector, it also gives you insights into the quirky personalities of Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman), Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) and Marky Ramone (Marc Bell). 

Their particular traits — Joey’s obsessive compulsive disorder, Johhny’s anger and obsession with control, and the respective heroin and alcohol addictions of Dee Dee and Marky — may be overemphasized somewhat for dramatic effect, but that’s to be expected.

Sometimes the acting doesn’t live up to the material despite the impressive pedigrees of those delivering the lines. Justin Goodhand (Joey), Cyrus Lane (Johnny), Paolo Santalucia (Dee Dee) and James Smith (Marky) are all young theatre veterans with long resumes. But perhaps because they’re portraying characters who I started listening to in my early teens and have since read about and watched in videos, I sometimes had difficulty imagining them as the four New York musicians who helped introduce the world to punk rock in 1976 and had such an influence that they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

The same can be said for Ron Pederson (Spector), since I was so familiar with his 1960s hits, “wall of sound” production techniques and ever-increasing erratic behaviour, which culminated with him being imprisoned for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

While I knew that Danielle ditched Joey for Johnny, which created a conflict between the two men for the rest of their lives, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what she was like. So, for that reason, I might have been most impressed with Vanessa Smythe’s performance despite her having the smallest role in the play.

While director Richard Ouzonian has served as artistic director of five major Canadian theatres and as an associate director of the Stratford Festival for four seasons, I’m most familiar with him for being the longtime theatre critic for the Toronto Star. From reading his reviews and articles over the years, I never would have thought of him as a Ramones fan or an appropriate choice to helm Four Chords And A Gun.

However, I have no issues with Ouzonian’s staging or pacing. And while the set design was relatively simple, it worked -- especially within the intimate confines of the Fleck Dance Theatre, where I was still within a few metres of the action from my fifth row seat.

Four Chords And A Gun concludes with an epilogue involving Marky telling the somewhat tragic tales of what happened to all of the players after End Of The Century.

While some Ramones songs are played in the background during the play, it should be emphasized that Four Chords And A Gun isn't a musical and no-one sings their lines. However, after the actors took their bows, the stage was quickly rearranged and four musicians came out to play a set of Ramones covers.

It seemed disjointed and the renditions of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “We’re A Happy Family,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Pinhead,” “Danny Says,” “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” “Beat On The Brat” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” weren’t particularly inspiring.

This component of the evening could have easily been left off. Or if the desire to keep it is strong enough, it probably would have been more appropriate at the beginning to get people into the spirit of things as they were taking their seats in anticipation of the main event.

And instead of the four musicians who played on Tuesday night, I would have gone with The Gabba Heys. The Toronto Ramones tribute band has been playing the club circuit for years and would have delivered more energy and street credibility.

I also noticed a couple of timeline incongruities in Four Chords And A Gun. Johnny mentions the death of John Wayne during his first meeting with Spector, which would have taken place before recording began on May 1, 1979. “The Duke” didn’t pass away until June 11 of that year. Johnny also talks about the new Blondie album including rap music, but Autoamerican — which featured Debbie Harry rapping on “Rapture” — wasn’t released until November 1980.

Aside from this nitpicking, I enjoyed Four Chords And A Gun and recommend it to anyone with knowledge of, or an interest in, The Ramones.