With a randy impudence and audacity – occasionally bordering on the sophomoric – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson pokes fun at our seventh president of the United States with the anarchistic verve of a rebellious rock star. Produced and staged with an eye towards cutting-edge entertainment rather than total historical accuracy, this musical is the perfect stimulant for those who are intrigued by today’s intermingling of media hype with the myriad facts that constitute a President’s background and career profile.
The Studio Theatre’s production is bracing and high-voltage with stellar production values, a strong group of musicians and the tightly controlled directorial hand of Keith Alan Baker and Co-Directors Christopher Gallu and Jennifer Harris. I do not think I have seen such a disciplined ensemble piece in quite a long time – everyone is playing off one another with finesse and with their respective strengths.
Composer Michael Friedman’s musical propels the audience very swiftly into the specific events of Jackson’s life such as his wooing of the already-married Rachel, the removal of Indian tribes and the Battle of New Orleans. The difference here is that all these events are portrayed in a show at a hurtling rapid pace in just over ninety minutes time – with the largest assortment of theatrical flourishes and stimulating shtick that this reviewer has ever seen combined in one show.
Think of the interactive, cavorting and rowdy nature of such shows as Hair, Godspell and Rent coupled with the sarcastic and cutting-edge humor of the National Lampoon, Bill Maher and Saturday Night Live. Nothing that can be mocked is left un-mocked from the homespun platitudes of Jackson’s parents to the bigamous marriage of Rachel and Andrew to the effete posturings of the Washington, DC political cliques and the East coast mentality at large. Visual and musical references from Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor to musical interludes by Michael Jackson, Madonna and Cher are astutely employed to create a connection between past and present thus provoking the audience into becoming complicit with the cast. Credit Music Director Christopher Youstra, Set and Prop Designer Giorgos Tsappas and Video and Projections Designer Erik Trester with much of the effectiveness of this approach.
Heath Calvert (Andrew Jackson) sets the tone and commands the stage with the callow, sneering authority this role requires. Think Elvis Presley at his most petulant combined with shades of CrispinGlover from the film River’s Edge with a dash of Mick Jagger and you get a good idea of the effect produced by Calvert. I especially admired the way Calvert seemed to pace himself for his bigger moments – often holding himself in reserve in quieter moments in order to maintain the physical endurance he needs for this show’s demands on his energy. Calvert is rarely ever off stage and his is an extremely well thought-out portrayal; a lesser talent would have just given a one-note manic performance.
Felicia Curry as the Storyteller who strives to be politically correct while the insanities hurl around her – hits just the right note of aggrieved patience and control. Rachel Zampelli Jackson (Rachel Jackson) possesses a beautiful, delicate singing voice as well as strong acting chops. Davis Hasty, Matt Dewberry, Ben Horen, Pomme Koch and Alex Mills tear into their roles with the requisite polish and timing required.
Alex Timbers, who wrote the book, is clearly a very clever writer in mixing so many different styles to create such an original work. His work here on Jackson evokes the populist appeal of such politician/Presidents as especially seen in the early stages of the Carter, Clinton and Obama campaigns. The supposedly authentic, iconoclastic voice of the political outsider who battles the heartless establishment is a phenomenon that never dies. The fickle nature of a public that turns on its perceived heroes is something that holds true in today’s current political climate as well.
Presidents have long been a part of musical theater lore from Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing to the dark vision of Sondheim’s Assassins, but this production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a very singular sensation that will stand on its own merits.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays through August 5th, 2012 at Stage 4 at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.