Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
American Repertory Theater of Western New York
Written by Alex Timbers
Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Directed by Jeffrey Coyle
A couple years ago, the original production of this show was taking downtown NYC by storm. While I missed it there, the production currently taking place on Linwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo was an opportunity to see a skilled, professional and hilarious regional premiere. Told with enthusiasm and precision, this is a production worth buying tickets to immediately.
While the idea of America’s seventh president as an “Emo Rock God” might seem incongruous at first, with cast members entering the performance space in ripped tights, black netted shirts and enough eyeliner to kill an elephant (if elephants ate eyeliner and eyeliner was poisonous, that is), the rockstar nature of Jackson’s DGAF frontiersman ‘tude and the often tongue-in-cheek style of delivery bring this story screeching into the 21st century. In a skillfully-observed marriage of styles, the style of Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics compliment the rage and emotion of American politics.
The talented cast delivers on all scores – even when technical malfunctions took a headset mic out of play, Steve Copps (as the titular Jackson) didn’t miss a beat. Between asking whether audiences wanted to see his “stimulus package” and taking part in bleeding rituals (“it’s a real 19th century medical practice!”), it’s easy to see Jackson in the role of band frontman a la Panic at the Disco and other emo trendsetters of the early 2000s.
The show says a lot about how America has changed, and how it hasn’t. Jackson’s determination to rid the country of the native population and the wink-wink comparisons to modern-day populist movements are disconcerting. There’s one line in particular where he points out that he’s making the changes the American people want to see made which is disturbing in that it grasps the precise conflict between majority rule and the protection of minorities: where is the protection for disadvantaged, harassed and discriminated-against groups when leaders serve the general will of the people?
Not that Jackson’s predecessors are portrayed as having made much of a contribution in this area. The menacingly hilarious quintet of elder statesmen: Van Buren (Steven Brachmann), Monroe (Matt Kindley), John Quincy Adams (Matthew Mooney), Calhoun (Christopher Parada) and Clay (Rowlins) and the rest of the founding fathers mentioned in the book are portrayed as wig-and-lace wearing toffs, right down to the hilarious New England accents they wear. The show portrays the quintessential American dilemma of civilization vs. frontier by following Jackson as he takes Florida from the Spanish, Georgia from the Native Americans and more: to Jackson’s friends, family and neighbors, the threat from these groups is immediate and deadly. To the federal government, however, the logistical and legal issues at stake leave no room for understanding the actual plight of those on the ground. The resentment this breeds is unsettling in that audiences will immediately be able to track the political commentary to today’s world, quickly realizing that while the names of the “enemies” have changed, American tactics for dealing with those who encroach on this great land of ours (emphasis mine) have not.
This Buffalo production is rife with talent, from the specificity of Coyle’s direction to the management of a stage ensemble nearly 20-strong to the obvious control and focus of each performer. Some specific delights: Priscilla Young-Anker does much to set the tone as the Storyteller, who emerges in a motorized scooter to fawn lasciviously over Jackson in his early days and winds up taking one in the neck when her interjections become too intrusive. The angry, disaffected attitude thrown up by so many of the shows movers and shakers – particularly the dead, passionless tone taken by Jackson’s mother in her early scenes (the actress, a member of the ensemble, is sadly not noted for this role in the program, though if anyone from the company would like to provide her name I’ll add it here later) – set a tone for the mix of hilarity, resentment and angst that pursue Jackson throughout the show.
For audiences concerned about the production’s edginess, the play is so skillfully executed and so fast-paced that the bawdy humor avoids becoming awkward for, say, an audience member who brings her parents along. All three members of my party were laughing hard throughout the production; most of the time, I was laughing so hard I had to wipe tears from my eyes to be able to watch the show.
With tickets at $25 for regular audience members and $15 for students, this fast-paced, intermission-less production leaves nothing to be desired; it’s a thrilling professional production of a meaningful and politically-charged play.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs select evenings through October 12, 2013 at ART IN THE BOX, 16 Linwood Avenue, Buffalo. The Broadway cast recording is available on Spotify. Tickets for this production were purchased by the reviewer.
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