by Lynn on April 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont.

Written by John Ross Bowie

Directed by Richard Ouzounian

Set and lighting by Nick Blais

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by James Smith

Projections by Alex Williams

Cast: Justin Goodhand

Cyrus Lane

Ron Pederson

Paolo Santalucia

James Smith

Vanessa Smythe

A cheeky play about the Ramones and their nightmare dealing with recording genius Phil Spector. Cheeky because it’s a play about a musical group without any singing. The acting is great and Richard Ouzounian’s direction illuminates that raw, dark wild world. 

The Story. On May 1, 1979 the American punk rock group, The Ramones, went into a recording studio to record what would be End of the Century with Phil Spector. He was the legendary recording producer who hadn’t had a hit in seven years. They were a group that needed to go to the next level and their recording company thought working with Phil Spector would be the key. Little did they know.

Spector was the wild, unpredictable, gun-toting eccentric who bullied, cajoled and threatened artists to produce. He honed into their weaknesses and drilled at them until he got what he wanted even if it took hours and hours of takes. The Ramones were no different. There was Joey, an obsessive/compulsive; Johnny, a control freak and almost always angry; Dee Dee, going deeper and deeper into drugs to get him through; Marky who never met a drink he didn’t like to excess.

 The Production. It’s 1979. Nick Blais has created a dark set with an extensive drum kit at the back. This is cheeky because this isn’t a musical and except for a few short drum riffs, no music is played by the group. (There is a concert (of Ramone songs?? Don’t know) by a band who come on after the play, but it’s cheeky to have the kit there and not play it.)

There are set pieces that easily slide on and off to suggest the spooky and vast home of Phil Spector. Characters constantly mentioned that they got lost in the place, it was so large.

The four long-haired men of the Ramones are decked out in Ming Wong’s grunge costumes: torn jeans, black leather jackets, t-shirts in various stages of “worn”. Johnny (Cyrus Lane) counts and re-counts their share of the take from a recent concert. It always comes up short. The promoter shafted them on their share. Cyrus Lane instills an impatience, a need to pace up and down as he stews over some transgression done to him or the group. Lane has that straight-ahead gaze and clear headedness that would be needed to keep the band afloat since the others were incapable. Lane shows us a driven, humourless man who always has his eyes on the prize. When Phil Spector asks the band to play another chord, Johnny balks.

Joey (Justin Goodhand) is a tall, lanky man who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. His girlfriend Linda (a confident Vanessa Smythe) is understanding to a point. Goodhand portrays a fragile minded man, good natured but of course obsessive with wild behaviour (he doesn’t take off his shoes for months, until he experiences a shock—Linda leaves him for Johnny).  This being 1979 women who are ‘friends’ of band members are treated off-handedly. The man is the boss. She does what he says. She is a sexual plaything.  From the perspective of 2019 this is unacceptable. But we must consider the time and accept it as behaviour that was acceptable then.

Dee Dee is played beautifully by Paolo Santalucia. As the play goes on Dee Dee gets deeper and deeper into drugs. He is strung out most of the time. Santalucia’s eyes droop more and more, his word are said slowly and are slurred. The shift is subtle and yet resounding. Marky as played by James Smith is played as a fun loving drinker of anything that will create a buzz. The various demons of Dee Dee, Joey and Marky, make Johnny the natural leader of the group. Then there is Phil Spector himself, played with control and danger by Ron Pederson. He arrives in total control in a suit over which is an over coat slung over his shoulders. Spector knew how to manipulate an artist because in the room he was the only artist that counted.

Spector had a reputation for creating great sounds from bands, but how he got there—by bullying, cajoling, threatening and turning violent got results—was off concern. In the play he pulls a gun out of his pants waist band. He didn’t shoot it then or later—please hold the Chekhov references, this isn’t Chekhov and we are dealing with a true incident in 1979—but his unpredictability is established.

Spector needed the Ramones to give him a hit after seven lean years and they needed him to give them a hit at last. As the program says, “Phil Spector made the Ramones a legend and destroyed the band.”

John Ross Bowie is an actor (“The Big Bang Theory”) who has written Four Chords and a Gun about the Ramones. It gives us a glimpse into their murky world of mad geniuses (Phil Spector), sex drugs and rock and roll. Director Richard Ouzounian does a valiant job of creating that world and guiding his talented cast to get under the skin of their characters.

Comment. The program states that ‘it’s a fictional account inspired by a true-life event. In other words, John Ross Bowie is writing about the making of one recording, “End of the Century” and how the Ramones coped with it all. It’s not a docudrama about the history of the band; they don’t play their noted hits or even sing any of their less notable hits; we get a smattering if biography of each band member as they prepare, in their own way, to record with Phil Spector. Criticizing Four Chords and a Gun for what it isn’t is like going into McDonald’s and winging that it doesn’t have any Swiss Chalet chicken.

If you accept the play for what it is and not criticize it for what it isn’t, you’ll be fine.

Starvox Entertainment/Corey Ross presents:

Opened: April 10, 2019.

Closes: April 29, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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1 Lyle Belkin April 27, 2019 at 7:42 am

Great and fair review. As a die hard fan of the Ramones since attending their first Toronto concert in September 1976 I was nervous about this play after reading a snarky review in the Star, and because so many things about the Ramones over the years have been letdowns that didn’t do the band justice … but I saw it last night and enjoyed it immensely as did the other people I was with who are not die hard Ramones fans. Thanks for getting it right.