By Philip Pearce
THE HAMILTON PHENOMENON has launched us headlong into the roaring waters of the off-beat, on-point American History Musical. Latest local example is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which just opened at The Western Stage. Where Hamilton is a big, loving, panoramic celebration of our nation’s birth pangs, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offers a far more raucous, goofy and irreverent look at a moment in US history. It’s about the blustering and stumbles of our populist seventh president as he takes up arms against an allegedly snooty out-of-touch Washington ruling elite.
Sound familiar? Well, yes, and writers Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) and Alex Timbers (book) even transmogrify Old Hickory into a media-obsessed rock star with a big teen following. This adoring fan base pressures him to launch an attack on the big, bad East Coast political establishment and at first he resists their blandishments, “I’m not that Guy!” But as he taps deeper into a rich vein of unthinking adulation, “Populism, Yeah, Yeah!”, it’s clear he won’t hold out for long, “I’m so that Guy!” He’s played by Ken Allen Neely with a roistering gusto that infects the entire cast and produces just under two hours of almost nonstop comic energy on the Hartnell Main Stage.
Friedman and Timbers have created an Andy Jackson who is nothing if not bloody. For starters, he and his frontier ladylove Rachel take their unconventional nuptial vows in a blood bath of exchanged bodily fluids. Unconventional or not—she’s already married to somebody else—it’s Rachel who becomes the only stabilizing force for mature family life in the face of all the juvenile excesses of Jackson’s budding political career. She’s played with vigorous commitment by Megan Root.
Just as bloody a politician as he is a bridegroom, Jackson spends a lot of his early political career taking potshots at political opponents or at almost any small annoyance that crosses his path. An early victim is Cheryl Games, in a wonderfully loony portrayal of a schoolmarmish narrator. She spouts details of Jackson’s early career with such relentlessly smarmy adulation that it’s no surprise when AJ decides to knock her out of the action in a casual walk-by shooting. She drags herself off stage, presumably in search of a first aid kit, returns later on to put in her two cents and is finally eternally offed with a straight shot.
It’s a show marked by that brand of screwball surprises. Games’ narrative duties are taken over by some Jacksonian saloon gals headed by the dynamic Jill Miller, supported by beautiful Hanne Tonder and a small brunette whirlwind named Chloe Babbes.
As you might guess, Jackson also wages his own private and unofficial battles against the “encroachment” of English and Spanish “foreigners” into US territory. He’s even madder at those pesky Indians and uses trickery, wampum, diplomacy and war to push a succession of southeastern tribes out of long centuries and vast expanses of their homeland. Accompanying all of this wheeling and dealing is a fresh take on the “10 Little Indians” nursery rhyme, sung with dark acerbic relish by Babbes, who later takes on the role of an Indian orphan adopted by the unpredictably compassionate Jackson during one of his Native American skirmishes.
The forces of Washington elitism are also on hand, played with a lot of satiric dash, foolery and vocal excitement by Cameron Eastland as Martin Van Buren, Edie Flores as Henry Clay, Josh Kaiser as John Calhoun, Joshua Reeves as James Monroe and Dan Druff (is that his real name?) as John Quincy Adams, who finagles the naive Jackson out of his apparently successful first crack at the presidency. Flores doubles as a troubled but loyal Native American supporter named Black Fox, who ultimately gets the shaft from AJ.
John Selover directs Jackson’s rise to political power in loud and blatant slapstick vignettes, half comic strip, half SNL comedy skits, illustrated by back-projected chunks of visual history. The mood is sardonic, the action broad, the language loud and vulgar and the effect very funny. Don Dally and three talented musicians do full justice to the blare and explosion of the emo rock score and even turn in brief, creditable acting performances as a gaggle of tourists being shown through the Jacksonian White House. Inevitably, the closing half hour, where the sophomoric hero discovers that campaigning is a heap easier than presiding over a fickle electorate with short attention spans, is less engaging, more talky and a bit of a drag.
But things pick up again when that smarmy deceased Storyteller returns, and you’ll have to see the show for yourself if you want to know how she manages to do that. What’s important is that she pinpoints the question lurking behind all the show’s crazy mixture of wisdom and foolery. Was Jackson one of our national heroes, or only a narcissistic gun-happy mass murderer?
The opening night audience was enthusiastic but small and that suggests that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson may not be everybody’s pot of gumbo. If so, it’s a pity. It’s another example of Western Stage’s effort to nudge us out of our play-going comfort zones and introduce us to some of the less-heralded treasures of theater today.
It plays weekends through July 29th.
Photo by Richard Green