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Ron Pederson plays Phil Spector.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Title: Four Chords and a Gun
  • Written by: John Ross Bowie
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Richard Ouzounian
  • Actors: Ron Pederson, James Smith, Justin Goodhand, Cyrus Lane, Paolo Santalucia and Vanessa Smythe
  • Company: Starvox Entertainment/Corey Ross
  • Venue: Fleck Dance Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 28

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If being punk means being “anti,” Four Chords and a Gun, a dramatic play about the punk-rock misfits the Ramones, earns its leather jacket by rebelling against the jukebox musical. (Which it is not. The only live music happens at a short post-play concert.)

And if punk rock means freedom, as Kurt Cobain said it did, maybe the Ramones weren’t punk rockers at all. Written by The Big Bang Theory actor-comedian John Ross Bowie, Four Chords and a Gun shows the members of the Ramones locked into roles (though they all shared the surname "Ramone,” none were biologically related) and in denial. The punk-rock clothing they wore were costumes. Their song We’re a Happy Family – “sitting here in Queens, eating refried beans” – was satire. Rock stars? Hardly. They were schmucks looking to make enough money to retire on. There was no freedom to the Ramones.

From left: Justin Goodhand, Paolo Santalucia, Ron Pederson and James Smith.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

The play focuses one of rock and roll’s storied episodes: The unlikely collaboration between the amateurish New Yorkers and the legendarily perfectionist record producer Phil Spector. Looking to make a break-out album, the dysfunctional Ramones travel at the turn of the seventies, lost-tribe-like, to Los Angeles to work with the hit-making Spector. In Four Chords and a Gun, even Spector’s mansion is unnavigable to the simple-chord foursome.

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We see tall singer Joey Ramone (portrayed by Justin Goodhand) as a severe sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Drummer Marky Ramone (James Smith) is a narcoleptic alcoholic. Goofy bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Paolo Santalucia) is in denial about his drug use and sexuality. The life goal of guitarist Johnny Ramone (Cyrus Lane) seems to be stoicism.

Spector is displayed as a cape-wearing, manipulative narcissist with a quick wit, sideburns forever and, yes, a gun.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

They’re mostly in over their head with Spector, displayed as a cape-wearing, manipulative narcissist with a quick wit, sideburns forever and, yes, a gun. He’s played by Ron Pederson, who in this role bears an uncanny resemblance to National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman. Once you notice the likeness, you won’t be able to unsee it. But you’ll be fine as long as no one points it out.

According to the director’s note supplied by Richard Ouzounian, the play asks a question: Does an artist (in this case, Spector) have the right to manipulate and abuse other artists (here, the Ramones) to get a desired result?

The play asks a question: Does an artist have the right to manipulate and abuse other artists to get a desired result?

Dahlia Katz

Ouzounian writes that the question is one “we’re all struggling with today.” The problem is that one of the people who seems to be struggling with the issue the most is first-time playwright Bowie. He doesn’t ask the question very well with Four Chords and a Gun, and his answer is absent. Still, just because the production at Toronto’s well-hidden Fleck Dance Theatre doesn’t appear to achieve what it sets out to accomplish doesn’t mean the play doesn’t achieve something.

To my mind, the unfocused-but-ruggedly-satisfying Four Chords and a Gun is about living with lies and the sadness that comes with the day-to-day maintenance of the fronts we project. The album the Ramones made with Spector, End of The Century, put the band on the charts. The record (which included a version of Rock 'n' Roll High School and a cover of the Spector co-written Ronettes hit Baby, I Love You) also represented the souring of their innocence. It’s a good album – and a poignant story.

Vanessa Smythe plays the girlfriend of two of the Ramones.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

Part of the sadness involves a love triangle. All the actors in Four Chords and a Gun have their charismatic moments, and Vanessa Smythe (who plays the girlfriend of two of the Ramones) is no exception. Her upbeat character boosts the confidence of Joey by reminding him that he is a rock star, and points out the fakery of Johnny, who can’t be seen doing anything as subservient as carrying her groceries.

The play ends with narration from Marky, who tells the audience that the Ramones went on to make many more albums after End of the Century, even if they couldn’t stand each other. He discloses that the other three Ramones died young, and that Spector would probably die in jail.

In 2009, the by-then reclusive Spector was convicted of murder after he shot a woman with a pistol in his mansion. Ah, yes, the gun. The titular weapon really doesn’t figure largely in the play, truth be told. Punk-rocker Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon) once asked of his audience if they ever got the feeling they’d been cheated. Good question from him.

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