In 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' the Populist President Speaks Mostly to the Teens
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a hard-rock musical that tells the life story of this nation's seventh president in modern lingo in an attempt to make the 19th century relevant to youth culture. Let's just say, been there, done that, hella better.
Jesus Christ totally became a rock star back in 1971 when Jesus Christ Superstar transubstantiated God's only son into someone the kids could really groove on.
That innovation, of contemporizing a historical figure with pop music and hip vernacular is now a familiar way to make an archaic story pertinent to our times. Andrew Lloyd Webber's '70s musical explained the rise of a magnetic populist figure by comparing his ascendancy to that of celebrities and rock stars.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson re-imagines Jackson as a guitar slinging, injin' shooting bad boy with a potty mouth. The 2006 musical, written by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman opened on Broadway to mixed reviews in 2009. Although it was nominated for several Tonys, it closed early in New York. Last week, San Francisco Playhouse launched its Tenth Season with the play at their wonderful new theater in the Kensington Park Hotel.
Giddy and anarchic, the production is an accessible account of the birth of populism, the founding of the Democratic Party and Jackson's obliteration of Indian tribes. The musical revels in it's dumbed-down version of history. The play relies heavily on the drawn-out gag of anachronistic ineloquence. If that fourscore stuff is a real snooze, won't kids today perk up to hear the prez say that "James Monroe is a douche bag?"
In these 1900's, the OED has been shelved and replaced by OMG and its ilk of thumb-talk and inarticulate youth-speak. And stuff.
Ashkon Davaran plays Jackson as a petulant youth having one long hissy fit. He sings, "Life sucks and my life sucks in particular." John Quincy Adams' and Henry Clay's back-up singers sing, "Jackson is a loser, Jackson is a loser."
The back-up singers make a cheery brigade of groupies and play other roles with solos and some clever lyrics. Angel Burgess plays Jackson's wife, Rachel, who dies more or less from abandonment and heartbreak, when Jackson decides to run for president. Crushed and defeated, she sings a sad ballad: "I always thought I'd live in a house with a dog and some kids and some slaves." El Beh plays a cello, waving it like it's an electric guitar. She sings "Ten Little Indians," counting down the number of Native Americans as they are pushed back off their land in the Trail of Tears.
Safiya Fredericks plays Black Fox, an Indian chief who negotiates with Jackson on the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
A little old lady narrator (Ann Hopkins on a scooter) narrates the story in historical context, positing, "Was Jackson a great president, an American hero or a genocidal murderer?" Jackson who does not want the history books to define him, keeps shooting her in the head.
In fact blood, bloody ambushes, blood-stained clothes, gun shots and arrow wounds add to the over-the-top humor in this bad attitude version of a middle-school history play.
William Elsman, Michael Barrett Austin and Lucas Hatton play political foes and supporters and round out the onstage band, under the musical direction of Jonathan Fadner.
Jon Tracy directs a large cast of frontier cowboys, wild west militiamen, establishment politicians, Indians and womenfolk. The ragtag renegades stomp around with thrasher dance moves, hanging from ladders and scaffolding. Their defiant, rebellion rock looks a bit like the stage of American Idiot, the show based on the music of Green Day.
But the talent is more amateurish. In fact, it is surprising that a play that relies so heavily on music features some sub-par singers, some are off-key. Head-banger punk rock may often strive for dissonance and noise, but here, the actors are called upon to sing songs that are audible over the electric guitars and pounding percussion.
The show has been described as an emo rock musical. Short for emotional hardcore. A subgenre, "screamo," may be even more apt, as it accentuates the aggressiveness. Emo musicians have a certain look and the music has been associated with self-mutilation and suicide. In Bloody, Bloody Jackson has a compulsion to cut his wrists.
Davaran's Jackson is certainly an interesting combination of aggression, self-pity and bravado. He struts the stage and asserts political promises such as "I'm gonna fill you with Popula-jizz-m."
Call me an old-fogey, but my favorites aspects of the show were the historical insights and the parallels to contemporary politics. Jackson's fan base gushes that the president invited the public to attend his inauguration and that he turned to bow to the people. Of course, one thinks of the massive stadium concert that was Barack Obama's crowd-pleasing inauguration. Candidate Obama speaks of our vital participation in his election (enough with the email blasts!) and tells us that we are the one's we've been waiting for. Andrew Jackson brings his groupies, some with pom poms and sunglasses, into the Oval Office. "What The People want..." he proclaims, "is pizza!"
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through November 24, 2012 at the SF Playhouse. For tickets and information, visit sfplayhouse.org or call 415-677-9596.
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