Over the course of his two-term presidency Andrew Jackson managed to polarize the American populous by expanding his presidential power and displacing countless Native Americans. Some deemed him one of the greatest presidents; others called him “American Hitler.” Originally brought to stage, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book by director Alex Timber, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” finds its way to Wilmington, premiering at City Stage via Cape Fear Theatre Arts LLC.
The play imagines pioneering American president Andrew Jackson as an emo rocker. With a tongue-in-cheek approach, it examines his Tennessee childhood and military service, along with his first attempts at a presidential election and depicting his maverick-style approach in the Oval Office. From his generation of the “executive power” to his forcible approach on Native American migration, such musical numbers as “Crisis Averted” and “The Saddest Song” take the audience through the “People’s Presidents” rise and fall.
“This play is gritty and campy,” L. Shane Fernando, who makes his directorial debut, explains. “It is a fast-paced, live cartoon that tells the story about an often forgotten but defining moment of our American history.”
Fernando has quite the résumé on the local theatre scene. As the director of UNCW’s Campus Life Arts and Programs, Fernando will leave the position in May to oversee Cape Fear Community College’s new Humanities and Fine Arts facility, set to open in January 2015. Fernando is also the president of Thalian Hall’s Board of Trustees, and is an actor and set designer. For “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” Fernando completely has removed the fourth wall to fully immerse the audience into the play. Though 200 years in the making, the play’s themes still apply to today’s society, so making the audience integral to the narrative proves key.
“What I love about this play is that its history is extremely accurate,” Fernando tells. “Many of the struggles our sisters and brothers faced generations before still confront us in modern times. However, we do have an opportunity to make better decisions and to get involved in our country’s political process.”
As one would imagine, a play revolving around a rocker version of Andrew Jackson comes with its fair share of bite. The show takes place in a disturbing time in American history, and the writing can feature jarring moments of political incorrectness. Yet, this serves to fully divulge the weight of the decisions and mindsets prevalent then. It allows the audience to hold up a mirror to today’s society, and question their own values and the current state of politics. (Have you heard of the new NC voter laws?)
“My sense of humor runs deep, as it does in the show,” Fernando comments. “But the moments of laughter and irreverence make the moments of heartbreak so much more precious and fragile.”
Keeping Andrew Jackson’s character fully rounded and identifiable throughout the play’s events proves no simple task. Paul Teal, former (semi-regular) “One Tree Hill” cast member, comes as just the right person for the job. The seasoned actor puts his chops to the test as he infuses heart, humor and humanity into the role.
The cast also comprises Wilmington theatre regular Patrick Basquill (“Assassins,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” and “Gallery”) as John Quincy Adams. David Heck takes on the role of Senator Calhoun. Michelle Reiff, Robin Heck, Alex Wharff, Chris Conner, Erik Maasch, Beck Hanner, George Domby, Caitlin Becka, Anna Gamel, and LaRaisha Burnette complete the cast.
“The cast have made the characters their own,” Fernando praises. “They are brilliant storytellers, and we will be taking the audience on this journey together.”
Bringing the musical to life is Chiaki Ito, who heads all of City Stage’s scores. Recently having done “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Assassins,” she will bring an original flair to the production which features high-energy rock tunes and ballads. “There’s actually a note on the score from [composer] Michael Friedman, and he says, ‘…most importantly, do whatever it takes to make the songs exciting, loud, and unexpected. That’s the most important note. Have a great time—I’m excited to pass the score along and see what you can do with it.’”
Ito listened to Friedman and rearranged “Second Nature.” Its original rendering features one guy and an acoustic guitar; however, Ito asked LaRaisha Burnette—also coming off of “Assassins”—to take it on instead. “In my opinion, when [LaRaisha] sings this song, it takes on a totally different feeling,” Ito reveals. “ I turned it into a full on rock ballad with piano, bass, drums, and guitar. Adding the full band allows for a wider range of emotions.”
UNCW communication studies professor Frank Trimble will choreograph the production. Transforming the stage into yester-century is Dallas LaFon (“Assassins” director) who will do light design. Foot lights and onstage chandeliers will give the rock musical an authentic 19th century look.“It will definitely make for a visual feast,” Fernando describes.
Adding to the visual spectacle will be set designer Terry Collins. It will depict a cohesion of time periods.
“You have the Oval Office with a modern phone on the antique desk, men in frock coats with punked-out hair and eyeliner, and a rock musical band is tucked into the balcony of the set,” Fernando explains. “I actually had Terry reproduce the balcony railing from the Level 5 theater on the stage. The paneling is reproduced from the theater into the stage set as well. Chandeliers and taxidermy dress the house.”
While laughing at history is fun, learning from it is even more beneficial. As the old adage goes: “History repeats itself.” In this case, it may just be worth watching.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
City Stage • 21 N Front St.
Fri. – Sun., May 15th-18th, 23rd-25th, 30th-June 1st, 8 p.m.