Story: Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president (1829-37), was not born into the landed gentry. Quite the opposite, Jackson endured a harsh life growing up on the Western frontier from the time of his birth in 1767. Orphaned at age 14, he struck out on his own with a fervent hatred of the British and a burning desire to take land away from Native Americans for the benefit of European immigrants. Jackson eschewed the way of politics in Washington, D.C. and carved his own career as a populist and the people’s choice.
His rough ways and military prowess in numerous battles, including the famous Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, endeared him to the working class as “Old Hickory.” Conversely, the powers in Congress considered how to deal with his brash ways and his unfeeling drive to push Native Americans into the “Indian Territory” now known as Oklahoma. Jackson lived his complicated life on his terms, marrying a woman not yet divorced from her first husband, becoming wealthy as a slave owner and founding the Democratic Party. Now, in the 21st century he is the subject of a most unlikely musical.
Highlights: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has enjoyed modest success since it premiered in Los Angeles in 2008. It opened off-Broadway a year later and then transferred in 2010 to the Great White Way, where it closed early in 2011 after 120 performances. It features music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers that blends fact and fiction while it takes a penetrating look at the national ideals, including the bullying of minorities and an unquenchable thirst for land and wealth, which propelled the United States into a world force in the 19th century and beyond.
Scott Miller, artistic director of New Line Theatre, is presenting the regional premiere of this raucous, rowdy and rapacious one-act extravaganza, which is often rude, crude and lewd, so be wary of taking children for a ‘history lesson.’ The arch, Goth style of this production, though, is brimming with energy and, if nothing else, might encourage patrons to read more about America’s first populist president.
Other Info: Miller’s choice of John Sparger for the lead role is shrewd and pays off handsome dividends. Sparger has the lean, hungry look of a frontiersman as well as the charismatic style that Jackson undoubtedly possessed. He explodes onto the stage leading the boisterous, infectious anthem, Populism, Yea, Yea!, that opens the show. It’s a perfectly exuberant expression to introduce the audience to Jackson’s quest to include the people in government’s decision-making processes.
Unfortunately, none of the remaining tunes measures up to that spirited debut number, although there is plenty more good music to be had. In keeping with the democratic flavor of the protagonist, Miller seats the smoothly functioning New Line Band at center stage back, where guitarist D. Mike Bauer offers occasional pithy comments to the goings-on while he and his colleagues, including conductor/pianist Justin Smolik, Dave Hall on bass and percussionist Clancy Newell deliver lively interpretations of Friedman’s score.
Amy Kelly provides humorous moments as a wheelchair-bound historian commenting feverishly on the early-day ‘rock star’s’ appeal to the common folk and his brushes with authority. The remainder of the cast wears a number of coonskin caps as well as funky modern fedoras as the production paints a vivid modern portrait of an American politician whose style still resonates in contemporary political machinations.
Historical figures such as Henry Clay (Nicholas Kelly), John Calhoun (BC Stands), John Quincy Adams (Zachary Allen Farmer), Chief Black Fox (Nicholas Kelly), James Monroe (Mike Dowdy) and Martin Van Buren (Brian Claussen) frequent the proceedings, including a probing and amusing number called The Corrupt Bargain, where Congressional leaders wrest the presidency of 1824 from Jackson’s popular vote and instead install John Adams’ son as the new president.
Taylor Pietz plays Jackson’s beloved wife Rachel, who just happened to be married when she met and married him, leading to eventual charges of bigamy that threatened Jackson’s career. Sarah Porter, Chrissy Young and Stephanie Brown also join Pietz as a quartet of Jacksonian groupies who, like their counterparts portrayed by Todd Micali et al, eventually grow weary of making decisions for him.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson can be silly but also insightful. It’s vulgar to the point where Timbers frequently inserts profanity past the point of whimsy and into the territory of lazy writing. And, yet, the show has so much vitality and dynamism that its faults can be vetoed.
Technical support is ably supplied by scenic designer Scott L. Schoonover, costume designer Amy Kelly, lighting designer Kenneth Zinkl, sound designer Donald Smith, props master Alison Helmer (kudos for the frontier dolls) and fight choreographer Nicholas Kelly.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is frantic, antic and full of surprises as Timbers speculates on how the west was really won and how America creates its heroes.
Musical: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Group: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: October 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20
Tickets: $10-$20; contact www.metrotix.com or 534-1111
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg