Editors' pick

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson photo
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

Setting fire to Old Hickory
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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 status. 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.

PREVIEW: Studio's bloody good romp
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, July 6, 2012

Let’s play a little game of word association, shall we? When I say Andrew Jackson, what comes to mind?

Old Hickory? Trail of Tears? Twenty big ones?

Skinny jeans, guitars and a post-adolescent penchant for cutting? Not so much.

But with the bombastic “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage will present that unhinged bit of revisionist history in musical form. The seventh president? He’s a rock star, with the populist power chords to incite a kind of Bieber fever among the voting masses.

Jackson was blessed with a face and shock of rock-ready hair that would look mighty fine on a band T-shirt, if not a Jumbotron. And surely his young life was fraught with enough pathos -- fatherless at birth, he later lost his mother and suffered other family tragedies -- to net him a few-hundred-thousand votes on “American Idol.” Were it not, of course, 1829.

“Andrew Jackson was the beginning of this American populist movement,” says Chris Gallu, who is directing Studio’s production with Jennifer Harris and Keith Alan Baker, explaining why it felt like the right moment to take on the show. “We’re in the throes of that right now with the tea party and Occupy.”

For Studio’s 2nd Stage, turning up the heat (and the volume) in the summer has become an annual ritual. This is the same troupe that joyously rubbed its audience’s faces in the dirty laundry of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” and then roused them with the moving, raucous “Passing Strange.”

“Bloody Bloody,” a two-time Tony Award nominee written by Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman, seemed like bloody good fun to have in an election year. The show follows the life and times of Jackson from his youth on the frontier through wars, political ambitions and moral failures. It just happens that this Jackson voices his disdain for the elite with all of the seething rage of an emo kid reared on Weezer, Dashboard Confessional and Fallout Boy. (Musical director Christopher Youstra says to expect tinges of Green Day, too, as well as more elements of Americana.)

The star of Studio’s production is Heath Calvert, a fresh-faced, 6-foot-4 New Yorker who knows the role intimately, having understudied as Jackson for the off-Broadway production and through the Broadway run that ended in early 2011. In those productions, Jackson was played by actor Benjamin Walker, currently slaying audiences on the big screen as Honest Abe in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

You may find yourself drawing comparisons between Jackson and his adoring electorate and every political firebrand of the televised era, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Barack Obama and Glenn Beck. Yet, Gallu says, the musical is “not trying to be a direct allegory to something that’s going on right now. It’s trying to send up the various facets of American democracy that we all sort of hate.” And, he adds, “it’s really bizarre.”

“Sick,” adds Baker, 2nd Stage’s artistic director.

The musical also doesn’t shy from Jackson’s expulsion of Native Americans from their land. His rock-star bravado appears to lead him blindly into monumentally bad decisions.

“It’d be really easy to do an hour and a half of schtick,” Gallu says. “It would be denying the facts that go along with the story. . . . A lot of people died because of Andrew Jackson. And we’re not running away from that. We want to have the shtick, and have the reality of that blood present in the show, and grapple with it.”