“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman rocks out City Stage. The biopic of President Andrew Jackson, envisions him as a lead singer of a punk band. Every minute of the show has been worth the wait to see.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” opened in New York at The Public Theater in 2009. The Public is a well-respected incubation point for many shows that are ahead of their time but go on to become iconic: “Hair,” “A Chorus Line” and “Passing Strange” name but a few. If there is one overriding premise of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” it is this: The parallels between early 19th and early 21st century American politics are strikingly clear. Far from being a period piece, this show remains incredibly timely.
It takes a lot of people to pull together a production of this scope: director, musical director, choreographer, band, the entire ensemble cast. Yet, the charisma, talent, skill and performance from a lead character like Andrew Jackson must be essential or nothing works in the show. Paul Teal nails the nuances of Jackson-the-rock-star. He emotes a brash, bold, bigger-than-life bad-ass; however, he also hones a misunderstood, sensitive boy with a heart for only one girl. His love comes alive though song: “Who am I? I’m Andrew Fuckin’ Jackson! Life Sucks! And my life sucks in particular.” Part rock anthem, part teenage angst, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll.
Michelle Reiff is “The Storyteller,” a narrator/tour guide of sorts, and Jackson’s most unlikely groupie. She’s also his most unappreciated fan (if Jackson shooting her in the neck is any indication). There are few people who radiate enthusiasm onstage as much as Reiff, and that alone almost upstages Jackson. Add in the bright yellow scooter she rides—jokes abound—and her scenes never tire. One can understand why this old lady is not with whom Jackson wants to share the stage.
Anna Gamel portrays Jackson’s real true love, Rachel Jackson. Their unlikely and satirical love duet, “Illness as Metaphor,” pokes fun not only at ‘80s power ballad videos but also the absolutism of life for a teenager as enshrined in music. It’s the audience’s first glimpse at the private side of Jackson—and the inevitable journey of the man with a greater need for public acclimation than private stability. Gamel’s j’acuse! solo, “The Great Compromise,” rivals the intensity of Chrissie Hynde with the ferocity of Pat Benatar.
It’s a tough show to hold your own in as a woman—though, they do pepper the ensemble, LaRaisha Burnette, Caitlin Becka and Robin Heck play a variety of female roles, acting as refugees, wives, mothers, cheerleaders, tourists, groupies, and more. Despite a lack of representation, they hold their own.
One particular stand-out comes in Burnette’s rendition of “Second Nature.” The song from Act II is a reflection on, among other things, the Trail of Tears (a removal and relocation of Native Americans from their own land) and Jackson’s legacy. Those familiar with the cast recording may expect one white guy with a guitar to sing this as a quiet, introspective reflection filled with personal doubt. Burnette and musical director Chiaki Ito take the song in a different but very powerful direction. Sung by a woman to Jackson, Burnette delivers with a sense of identity and accusation to make it a standout performance. Plus, it boasts a full band. As the music and Burnette’s voice swell and Jackson reacts, it is an incredible moment of a public man facing the realities of his actions and the dissent from those who do not go quietly to their fates when expected to be willing victims of his genocidal plan. To put this song in the hands of a woman who certainly would not have had the right to vote—due to both her gender and skin color—makes a visual and musical statement about having a democratic voice count in our government.
Make no mistake, this is a macho show about “the man who puts the ‘man’ in manifest destiny.” The male ensemble is a veritable who’s who of founding fathers and dead white guys. The play features Martin Van Buren (Erik Maasch), who was Jackson’s second vice president and succeeded him in office as the eighth president. Also, David Heck plays John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s first vice president, while Henry Clay (Alex Wharff), James Monroe (George Domby), John Quincy Adams (Patrick Basquill) fill out the cast. Together with Chris Conner they, too, play an assortment of people, including Native Americans, settlers, tourists, family, soldiers, etc.
A few standout moments are Alex Wharff’s Henry Clay, which, for all the world, looks like he is channeling a demonic version of Lindsey Graham. He captures the ferret-y, weaselly-ness that Graham tries to keep under control. Patrick Basquill’s John Quincy Adams (“Quincy-er”) is a perverse meeting of George W. Bush and Richard E. Grant with a pink Mohawk.
Making his City Stage debut, Beck Hanner’s depiction of Lyncoya, Jackson’s adopted Native American son, is filled with childish innocence and trust. His interactions with Jackson and the other adults in his life provide the foil that makes the enormity of Jackson’s betrayals real.
Director Shane Fernando has a phenomenal team, including choreographer and UNCW communication studies professor Frank Trimble. Trimble strikes a nice balance between using dance to enhance the story and setting the rock concert firmly in the minds of the audience. It’s carefully, expertly done, and combines classic Broadway musical choreography with MTV-esque vocabulary.
Terry Collins set design is wonderfully executed and puts the band center stage. This proves vital as the show uses the band as its main metaphor. It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly attends local theatre, or listens to Fernando’s commentaries on WHQR, that he loves working as a props master and set dresser. To that end, the set is immaculate down to the last detail. It includes 10 mounted deer heads, a full sized taxidermy bear, and assorted mounted fish and water fowl. “Hunting prey” is clearly communicated as the necessity for survival.
If you pick one show to see this month, make it “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” It is worth every cent. The script and score are phenomenal. The cast is incredible. The band is out of sight, and the design elements are a wonder to behold. This is what great theatre looks like: all the parts coming together to make something greater.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
City Stage • 21 N Front St.
Fri. – Sun., 23rd-25th, 30th-June 1st, 8 p.m.