Theater Review | Anachronisms abound in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’
Published: Friday, November 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 9, 2012 01:11
Musical theater and history buffs, beware: “1776” isn’t the only musical about American politics anymore.
Directed by Paul Melone, the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Alex Timber and Michael Friedman’s original musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” re-examines both traditional musical theater and the conventional perception of America’s 19th-century politics and presidents. Given that the show portrays a history any eighth grader in the U.S. ought to know, this show requires the audience to fully suspend disbelief and trust the storytelling more than the story.
Marrying Andrew Jackson’s bold personality and controversial policies to contemporary rock music, this musical gives the audience an idea of what Green Day would have sung about had the band existed in early 19th-century North America. This unconventional union provides an innovative take on American history while exploring new inroads into the forms of musical theater.
Unfortunately, while this show has garnered praise as a postmodern take on Jackson’s story, SpeakEasy’s production often mistakes irony and self-awareness for smugness by taking itself more seriously than the writers intended. Some of the jokes, such as references to Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault, were funny in their own rights as non-sequiturs and random anachronistic insertions. However, when these jokes are used as an excuse to name-drop, the humor falls flat because the relevant scene or song doesn’t actually pertain to the figure invoked. Because the production didn’t laugh at itself, the audience was often quiet in return.
And though the SpeakEasy team tries to present a substantive show, this production proves that “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is, perhaps, not intended to be a serious musical. In that respect, it may not be as versatile as many other musicals. Confused as to whether it is a rock musical or an emo/bluegrass/ska rockfest, “Bloody Bloody” never fully defines itself in a genre. Even the horn section, which this production added, increases power while perpetuating the show’s identity crisis. The mixture of acoustic and electric instruments proves frustrating, especially when they are played simultaneously, as the electric guitars overpower the acoustic ones. Additionally, the lyrics aren’t fully audible. The onstage band adds a nice visual aesthetic that contributes to authenticity of the show as a rock musical, but it could be utilized to greater effect.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this production is its ambiguous political message. As the show mentions, Jackson’s legacy is debatable, as his accomplishments include relocating and killing large numbers of Native Americans. Interestingly, this production chooses to end with a reminder of Jackson’s impact on the native populations in its homage to the Trail of Tears. While a political message could have been effective, especially during an election season, the concluding guilt trip catches the audience off-guard and results in silence and general discomfort before the cast breaks into what could otherwise be a rousing curtain call.
Throughout a recent show, the cast members — except for Gus Curry, the actor portraying Jackson — fluidly transitioned from one character to the next without missing a beat. From Jackson’s presidential contenders to modern tourists visiting the White House, Timbers wrote in a plethora of personalities that add to the performance’s chaotic, random humor. Most of the performances were notable, either as solo performances or as ensemble members. The male chorus proved stronger and more purposeful than the female chorus, although this could be attributed to Melone’s direction.
The visual design of this production also fits into the motif of the show with a consistent palate of slate grey, blue and sepia tones, punctuated by neon blue and red lights. Jackson and his cohorts wear leather and plenty of eyeliner, just in case the audience forgets that the costumes are supposed to be ironic. Americana knickknacks hang on walls and from vertical grids that form the set and they nicely enhance the mood of the show. Still, the set ultimately feels as though it encroaches on the already small playing area.
Though it raises questions about artistic and directing choices, this production gives its audience a good taste of Timber’s and Friedman’s work. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a unique musical that says as much about current musical tastes as it does about the United States’ seventh president.