American history textbooks simply do not do our seventh president justice. Sure, in old paintings, he’s got the thick, wavy hair thing going on, and the craggy features do set off a rugged, Clint Eastwood-y vibe. But where, oh where, is the cool eyeliner? Or the skinny jeans from Abercrombie & Fitch? Or, for that matter, Old Hickory’s most famous prop, the microphone he was known for, into which he belted out power ballads about his annihilation of the native population?
Well, thank heaven the record is finally being corrected by the subversive rock pedantry of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the spunky if structurally muddy musical of populist awakenings and out-of-control presidential egoism that spews epithets with the same liberty it applies to White House scholarship. The “American Idol”-izing of Jackson receives its local premiere at Studio Theatre in a visually pleasing and energetic production that gets some melodic moments absolutely right but feels a bit off when it comes to elements of the musical’s scorching snark.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which had a brief Broadway life after a well-received run off-Broadway at the Public Theater, depends not simply on a blazing performance from its Jackson, embodied bracingly here by Heath Calvert, he of the swivel hips and an all-star smile that demotes Mitt Romney’s or President Obama’s to second-string. The musical also rises or falls on attitude, the nihilism of our age applied to the festering class resentments of pre-Civil War America. It takes the position that venal leaders and craven followers go way back. Who knows? Maybe all the way back to the Magna Carta.
The concept appeals to those of a cynical nature — no small group these days. But getting the tone right with this kind of satire, without it seeming juvenile, is tough: The humor never completely gelled in the show’s original incarnation. It is on this terrain that the production of Studio’s 2ndStage program wobbles even more frustratingly. At times, the unevenness of the comedy stops the 90-minute musical cold.
Composer Michael Friedman and book writer/original director Alex Timbers have filled this rock vaudeville with sharp and stinging vignettes, as they apply to the portrait of Jackson’s controversial political career a veneer of contemporary contempt. Their conception of this marauding military hero from Tennessee, who waged a merciless campaign against Native American tribes, is a ruthless narcissist with a natural instinct for saying what people wanted to hear. The musical posits him as all slick surfaces — a tabloid-worthy celebrity of the 1820s and ’30s — who rose on the embittered voter reaction to the ruling elite that seemed to look down on ordinary folk.
“Populism, yea, yea!” sings the ensemble, outfitted by the clever costume designer Ivania Stack to look as if “Bloody’s” characters shopped at frontier outlet malls. Friedman’s memorable rock melodies are meant to be belted, and some fine actor-singers, particularly Rachel Zampelli Jackson as Jackson’s wife, receive terrific support on the stage of Studio’s raw space from the nine-member band led by Christopher Youstra. Justin Thomas’s lighting design supplies its own share of drama.
The sledgehammer humor of the transitional sketches, however, is hit-or-miss; the scathing edge is intended to convey a vibrant unruliness. But as staged by one of the show’s trio of directors, Keith Alan Baker, Christopher Gallu and Jennifer Harris — that’s a lot of cooks — many of the jokes don’t land. The scenes, for instance, in which political figures such as Martin Van Buren (Davis Hasty) and John Quincy Adams (Alex Mills) who vied with Jackson are lampooned as gay stereotypes never achieve the wholly outrageous effect Timbers is going for. And somehow, the introduction of these characters with a recording of Madonna’s “Vogue” seriously dates the joke — not to the 19th century, but less effectively, to 1990.
The tune-spewing dynamo Felicia Curry, always an asset, is utterly wasted here in the underdeveloped role of Storyteller; she and Calvert never get to forge any meaningful connection, so even if the inclusion of a narrator here is meant as irony, the point gets lost.
The cast of 19 is youthful and robust and looks great on set designer Giorgos Tsappas’s open-plan stage, and no one looks better than Calvert, who moves with a star’s ease (but needs to take care of those straining vocal cords). You’ll find the musical’s audacity, as reflected in Calvert’s head-held-high confidence, a becoming attribute, even if the production tends at times to trip over its own awkward feet.
by Alex Timbers, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Keith Alan Baker, Christopher Gallu and Jennifer Harris. Music direction, Christopher Youstra; choreography, Diane Coburn Bruning; set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Justin Thomas; projections, Erik Trester; sound, Aaron Fisher; costumes, Ivania Stack. With Ryan Sellers, Matt Dewberry, Ben Horen, Pomme Koch and Eli Schulman. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 19 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. www.studiotheatre.org. 202-332-3300.