NOT AS BLOODY AS THE TITLE IMPLIES
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an audacious rock musical tracing the life and times of Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States. The show is receiving its local premiere by the Bailiwick Chicago Theater, and at its best moments the production is a stimulating, challenging, theatrical, rip-roaring triumph. But it could be so much better.
A major hit off Broadway a couple of years ago, the fringe festival-type show failed in a transfer to Broadway. No surprise there. Typical Broadway audiences may pay $100 and beyond for a ticket to Wicked or The Lion King, but this edgy, in your face musical belongs in an intimate, informal space where it can entertain audiences willing to accept a show that operates well outside our conventional expectations. Bailiwick has found such a space in the casual atmosphere on the fourth floor National Pastime Theater on Chicago’s north side (elevator service available).
The show, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book by Alex Timbers, portrays Jackson and his times through a prism of anachronisms, raw language, and raucous rock music. The youthful, energetic, and generally very talented large cast is led by Matthew Holzfeind, an angular young man who at his best captures the charisma and messianic self-confidence that drove the original Andrew Jackson to the presidency from the most humble of western frontier roots.
The rambling narrative begins with Jackson as an orphan on the Tennessee frontier in the late 1700’s and follows his upward climb to spokesman for the common people fed up with being ignored by the posh political establishment centered in the young country’s northeastern states. Jackson leads the American army to a stunning victory over the British in the War of 1812, and his career then arcs inexorably toward the White House. He has the presidency stolen from him in the election of 1824 by the eastern political elite, who have no use for this brash and uncontrollable adventurer from the West. But Jackson rides a wave of populism to the presidency in 1828 and is reelected in 1832.
Jackson’s life is, of course, a matter of historical record, and the show follows his history fairly closely, but it’s the manner and not the matter that sets Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson apart: At its most satisfying, the staging has the entertaining what-next quality of Chicago, with a whiff of Bertolt Brecht and even Stephen Sondheim’s high-risk show, Assassins. At its worst, there is the smug, self-satisfied feel of a sophomoric revue intent on impressing the viewers with how hip and daring it is.
The production is always theatrical and in its best moments highly dramatic. The book and music draw obvious parallels between the Jacksonian era and today. Politicians want to “take our country back.” There is the conflict between the Eastern upper crust and the heartland. There is election fraud (or at least the accusation of backroom dirty dealings), a jingoistic military spirit, and an executive branch that tries to ride roughshod over the rest of the government. The connections between the early 1800’s and the early 2000’s are both unmistakable and disturbing.
Unfortunately, the production wastes about half its 100 minute running time in scenes that are jokey and ramshackle, often trying to extract cheap laughs from the audience, as in the frequent injection of simpering gay stereotypes among minor characters. The forced larky atmosphere and the surface high jinx undercut the ernest nature of the narrative. The material doesn’t take itself seriously with any consistency until the last half of the evening, when it finally allows the spectators a glimpse of what Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson could be minus the self-indulgence and tiresome nudge-nudge-wink-wink attempts at humor.
While in perpetual motion, the performers frequently address the audience directly, changing characters on the fly; meanwhile the audience is treated to cameos by real historical personalities like John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren. The characters look like figures out of Rent, though maybe not as well dressed, in thrift shop grunge costumes designed by Kate Setzer Kamphausen. Except for the occasional powdered wig, there is no attempt at historical verisimilitude in the show’s look. Also, anachronisms abound: The characters use microphones and a telephone and congratulate each other with fist bumps.
The overriding dramatic issue in the musical is the country’s brutal treatment of the Indians, a people seen as an impediment to the manifest destiny of the American (read white) nation in its expansion. Jackson took the lead in the extermination of the Indians through violence and betrayal, all in the name of the nation’s good. At the end of the show, one character confides to the audience that many people consider Jackson the greatest president of the nineteenth century but others reject him as a genocidal murderer, an American Hitler. The show doesn’t exactly take sides, but the final rear stage image of bowed-down Indians walking the fatal Trail of Tears from their ancestral home in Georgia to the desolate Oklahoma territory is a somber last visual word on Jacksonian democracy.
Holzfeind is strong and confident in some scenes and silly and lightweight in others; he has the stage presence and acting chops to dominate the role—he just needs to give Jackson the dramatic heft the man requires. Samantha Dubina is excellent as Jackson’s troubled wife Rachel, but everyone on stage deserves credit for their exuberance and their versatility as singers, dancers, and actors; the stamina level of the ensemble is impressive.
Frankly, the songs didn’t make much of an impression on me. They were typical rock numbers woven throughout the production almost as part of the dialogue, not book songs as one would find in a typical musical. They are accompanied by an excellent on-stage rock band whose members engage in the action from time to time. Matt Daitchman leads the band, tootles a few convincing notes on the trombone, and enters into the acting with gusto (James Morehead is credited as the music director).
Along with Kamphausen’s costumes, there are effective designs by Nick Sieben (the all purpose casual scenery), Mac Vaughey (lighting), and Jeff Dublinske (sound). Christopher Pazdernik’s choreography keeps the ensemble continually and effectively on the move.
If director Scott Ferguson earns props for bringing out the pungent, relevant elements of the story, he also has to take the blame for the facetious style that trivializes the narrative. I can’t remember sitting through a more frustrating show, alternately absorbed and entertained, annoyed and perplexed, as if Ferguson couldn’t decide whether he was orchestrating a bold and daring investigation into American history and the national soul or staging an adolescent romp.
photos by Michael Brosilow
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Bailiwick Theater at the National Pastime Theater
scheduled to end on November 10, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.bailiwickchicago.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com