Review by Rob Lester
With the alarmingly large number of recent headline stories about gun violence and the ongoing debates about gun control, a sly and smart musical on the topic makes its points —and wins points for its creators, because they give the satirical treatment their best shot (Pun intended). And there are some irresistible puns slipped into the script of the Frack Theatre-presented Machine Gun America, like when the leader of a support group of those affected by gun violence refers to what might “trigger” a memory. But they have more than just this kind of humor in their, um, arsenal.
First-time playwright Joseph Huff-Hannon makes an impressive debut. He begins the show with actors as newscasters sinking their teeth into news bites about very young kids whipping out guns and letting the bullets fly. Also flying over the scene is an eagle—Eddie the Eagle: the National Rifle Association’s actual cartoon character “safety” mascot with lessons and a perky sung mantra of safety tips, adapted from their real-life (and death) slogan to better scan with music (“Stop! Don’t touch! Run away/ Tell a grown-up…”). It comes with crisp choreography that looks even more simple-minded when adults do it. For every beloved cartoon character making personal appearances, there’s an underemployed actor in a furry animal suit, and Jeremy Varner is super-fine as our less-than-fine feathered friend who is disgusted and disgruntled and displaying a disposition towards explosiveness himself. And he’s hardly the only one in the group of characters we meet who seems a bit unhinged and whom you would probably NOT want to trust with a firearm. Background checks, anyone?
Like the best political satire, the show avoids preaching and makes its case with exaggeration and deliciously silly humor. Sure, it could use some tightening here and there as there are some been there/done that bits that repeat with diminishing returns, but, by and large it’s entertaining and effective. Director Matt Renskers doesn’t let things get too heavy or bogged down, and he and musical staging wiz Charlie Johnson have actors winking at musical theatre conventions as they strike poses and swirl around in musical numbers—at one point even taking a few attempts for the gal to leap into the guy’s arms to triumphantly end a love song. Curiously, the postcard enclosed in the playbill credits the songs as being by Huff-Hannon and Oscar Lopez, while the playbill itself credits Lopez as one of three producers, with songwriter credit just mentioned in passing in the “special thanks,” but listing John Turner as composer. In any case, the songs are fun, with some more on the money than others, and suit the loopy tone, cheeky intent, and take advantage of one character’s name rhyming with a kind of weapon.
As a guy nicknamed Bang Bang (because of his “oops” past, which the support group soothers tell him should not define him), actor Tim Murray strikes the right balance of wide-eyed earnestness and great slice of over-the-top ham. Tim Murray
(Bam Bam’s name is no relation to the baby on The Flintstones, but a logo encouraging tots to tote weapons features an equally cute toddler and the old pop song “Bang Bang” about kids playing as armed cowboys is heard). Murray’s reactions throughout – especially his awkwardness in courting scenes — show skill and sparkle. As the woman who catches his twinkling eye in the support group, Emily Donald is a convincingly troubled pre-school teacher unsettled by a tragedy at her workplace. Chelsea Picken as the group’s leader is a savvy comedienne with a solidly strong singing voice in the big Flamboyan Theatre space where the wide space, the sound of a much-needed fan, and too-loud accompaniment drowned out some of the lyrics of a few others. She’s a pip!! And I don’t mean the Gladys Knight kind, but a perky, smirky delight who captures and caps off the madcap intensity without exhausting it.
With strong stage presence, stylish Conor McGee makes an attractive impression, although his character of James could use more time and integration in the plot. Brandon Ferraro is a hoot as a strutting, self-important big wheel who sees the common sense precautions as the work of evil liberals (or, as he calls them, “gun-grabbers”). This actor has sharp comic timing and the script later lets this rabid Second Amendment advocate get some just desserts.
Some cleverly done filmed bits add to the impact of America’s brain-challenged glorification of guns and media coverage. (The inconsistency of having some TV bits done live and some on film could be rethought.) No specific reference to the current election year is made, nor are we unnecessarily brought down to gloomy earth by naming the victims and cities of recent incidents. Well, with the exception of what gives the play its title— an unattractive “attraction” in Orlando, Florida, the location for a new theme park all about weapons for the kiddies and their families, cheek by cheek with the wonderful world of Disney, and they are ready to arm Mickey Mouse. THIS IS NOT AN INVENTION OF THE SCRIPT!! SADLY, IT IS A REAL THEME PARK REALLY IN ORLANDO! As a P.S. to the performance I attended on August 22, the new activists’ protest group GAG (Gays Against Guns), which was formed in reaction to the nightclub shootings in Orlando had a representative present for a worthy after-show discussion.
The gleeful, near-drooling faces of real kids at a shooting range, in a brief film clip is frightening, just like truth-is-stranger-than-fiction staged reality of the play. I am assuming the program’s special thanks to someone named Leah Gunn Barrett of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence is an oddly coincidental real name and a real thanks, not just a little humor from a funny musical extending to the paper handout. But, suffice it to say the strong, well-aimed message of Machine Gun America is bullet-proof.
SEE IT WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24 AT 4:45 PM OR SATURDAY, AUGUST 27 AT 2 PM. LOCATION: FLAMBOYAN THEATER AT THE CLEMENTE, 107 SUFFOLK ST. ON MANHATTAN’S LOWER EAST SIDE, A FEW BLOCKS FROM THE ESSEX/DELANCEY SUBWAY STATIONS (F,J,M,Z) SEE WWW.FRINGENYC.ORG FOR DETAILS AND TICKETS ON ALL THE FRINGE SHOWS.