Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
What better tonic for the election year blues than the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s snarky rock musical about our 7th president, Andrew Jackson, a man who inspired the creation of the Democratic Party but who would fit right in with the Tea Party?
Jackson believed that the federal government should have limited power, but he also enforced federal law over an attempt by South Carolina to arrogate the right to refuse to follow federal laws with which the state disagreed. He also successfully sought the end of the National Bank, at the time a rough equivalent to Wall Street in terms of its influence over the national economy as well as the nation’s lawmakers. A bold military leader, Jackson repelled the British at the Battle of New Orleans and took Florida from the Spanish. Perhaps more than anything else, Jackson was a populist, but his populism carried dark overtones that included the forcible relocation of American Indians and support for slavery.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with a book by Alex Timbers and lyrics and music by Michael Friedman, explores the paradox of Jackson’s politics and world view, and does so with broad comedy, parody bordering on burlesque, and moments of high farce. Jackson endures a tragic childhood, embarks on a magnificent military career, grapples with entrenched political powers, falls in love with a married woman, maintains a complex partnership with an American Indian named Black Fox (Diego Klock-Perez), and adopts an Indian infant... despite an intense hatred of the New World’s native peoples. Clearly, this is a complicated guy, and the show’s 13 songs are similarly multilayered, with lyrics that sometimes veer into silliness but compositions that are smart and vivacious.
The script plays fast and loose with history, but it’s all in the service of a certain post-historical aesthetic; this is, after all, a rock opera of sorts, set in the late 1700s and early-to-mid 1800s. Gus Curry plays Jackson with a mix of unquenchable ambition and headstrong self-confidence, all of it laced with an adolescent emotional frailty; he’s a brat, but he’s a powerhouse who’s determined to make history and do it his own way.
Though Curry plays Jackson like a denizen of the MTV Generation, he’s a tower of ironclad will next to the "Eastern elite," a group of mincing schemers that includes John Calhoun (Ryan Halsaver), John Quincy Adams (Tom Hamlett), Henry Clay (Diego Klock-Perez), Marin van Buren (Joshua Pemberton), and James Monroe (Ben Rosenblatt). Their malicious clique bears more than a passing resemblance to the cozy special interest group that Congress has become (insider trading, anyone? It’s illegal for us... but not for elected officials), and can’t help but to cast a heroic light on Jackson.
Speaking of light, the recurrent image of blood is underscored, simply and effectively, by Jeff Adelberg’s use of red gels over the stage lights; the entire set is saturated in a scarlet glow as the play commences, and it’s a set that has a certain stadium rock panache about it, thanks to Eric Levenson’s scenic design.
The play delights in the anachronistic and abounds with meta-literary touches, such as the presence of an onstage band in which the actors play instruments and a Band Leader (Nicholas James Connell) who is always on hand, even as a band of four musicians handle the bulk of the musical performance. (Connell also serves this production as music director -- a role he filled with great success a couple of years ago in another SpeakEasy Stage Company show, "The Great American Trailer Park Musical." His work here is just as good.) Mary Callanan does a star turn as a Storyteller who narrates historical bullet points, starting off in a wheelchair, suffering a gunshot wound, and ending up dragging herself around on the floor.
If her character embodies History, then she’s one more example of how this play is willing to make fun, even of itself, in the name of making its points. The details may be glossed over, ignored, or deliberately misconstrued (all in the name of poetic license), but the general outlines of Jackson’s life and career are correct, as is the flow of historic events: Controversies around Jackson’s life and career, the 1824 election that was "stolen" from him when no one candidate won a majority and the House of Representatives appointed John Quincy Adams to the presidency, the Nullification Crisis. But what the play does exceptionally well -- and really, this is the punch line that this entire populism-as-funny-story leads up to -- is depict our 7th President as so much a man of the people that he actually asks common citizens what to do about huge, complicated issues. When their views turn out to be contradictory and uninformed, Jackson grows bitter and dictatorial.
How much of this is a pointed critique of the Tea Party and how much is necessary narrative development given the follies of human nature and the ramshackle nature of political power? The play started in 2007 in workshop productions and developed over the course of the next several years; it hit Broadway in 2010. In a sense, this play could be thought of has having developed right alongside the Tea Party.
However deliberate the parallels between Jacksonian America and today’s political climate, "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" asks us to consider the question, distasteful as it might be, of whether a bit of bloodletting now and again might not only be inevitable, but required for a healthy body politic. The play’s final image, referencing the "Trail of Tears" -- a forced march that relocated 7,000 Cherokees and that remains a stain on our national honor -- brings the play a sobering final note. Who have we been? Who are we going to be in years ahead?
Director Paul Melone handles switch-ups in mood and tone with finesse, the way the musicians (Connell, Marcus Bagala, Will Melones, and Danny Santos) handle key changes. Melone tethers the show’s flights of fancy to our own concerns and anxieties, and lends us some historic (and histrionic) perspective to carry us through the rest of this election season.
"Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" continues through Nov. 17 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.
Ticket prices start at $25; patrons 25 and under pay $25 at all times. Students and seniors receive a $5 discount. For tickets and more information please visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com