Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an electrifying, appropriately anarchic and delightfully anachronistic musical satire. Whew! I’m glad I got that out, because after watching the very talented folks at Street Theatre Company in a preview performance Thursday I really needed to tell someone.
The 247th anniversary of Old Hickory’s birth is Saturday, coincidentally, though this often profane and sometimes raunchy piece is a sharp-eyed and very often funny theatrical examination of the best and worst American traits personified in our nation’s seventh president and not an historical celebration of Jackson and his remarkable, controversial life. (I highly recommend going to the Hermitage whenever you can for the historical perspective – I’ve been several times over the years and it’s a fascinating place).
A 2006 workshop production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival marked the beginning of public life for BBAJ (a useful abbreviation I’ll employ the rest of the way). It was produced in Los Angeles in 2008 before the Public Theater mounted a concert showing in 2009 and then a full production in 2010. Later that same year it transferred to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre for a 120-show run. (After Broadway, by the way, University School of Nashville offered the first post-Great White Way performances.)
There was (among other adverse reactions) controversy regarding the portrayal of Native Americans during its Off-Broadway life that prompted some revisions to the show, which was written by Alex Timbers with lyrics and music by Michael Friedman.
On the surface it’s understandable that Native Americans and others might find something offensive in the no-holds-barred dialogue and lyrics, such as when Jackson (the oh-so-perfectly cast Geoff Davin) tells his wife Rachel “I love you, Rach, but I also gotta kill the entire native population!” But good satire should be uncomfortable at times since it’s telling the truth about the ways people think, speak and behave, especially when it’s dealing with something as horrible as the Indian Removal Act.
That doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at some of the outrageous things characters say – an example from the same scene between the couple has Andy telling the missus: “Sometimes … when I’m out on the battlefield, and I’m covered in blood, and I have terrible dysentery and diarrhea, I think of you. Here at the Hermitage, bleeding yourself …” It just means we come away with something to think about after we’ve been entertained.
The show’s songs are an enjoyable mix of styles and moods, from the irreverent setup “Populism Yea Yea” and “Illness as Metaphor” where we get a Susan Sontag reference to a sobering “Ten Little Indians” and heartrending “The Great Compromise” (the latter sung so touchingly by Nashville newcomer Savanna Garnick, whose voice is the welcome-to-the-ear audial equivalent of clear water cascading gently and evenly down mountain rocks).
Davin as the emo-rocking Jackson commands the stage from the start, but this fine actor knows that the best moments come from playing well with others. Whether he’s romantically entwined with Garnick’s Rachel, handling Andy Kanies’ rascally John Calhoun or dealing with Bryce Conner’s I-know-which-way-the-wind-is-blowing Black Fox, there’s a strong and believable connection to the moment that enriches the piece. To sum up, long before he sings “I’m So That Guy” it’s obvious he truly is that fascinating warts-and-all character.
Garnick, Kanies and Conner are complete performers too, as are the other ensemble members. It’s hard to note just a few for special attention, but in addition to those already mentioned I’d certainly say LaDarra Jackel’s way with a Twinkie as Martin Van Buren and Morgan Lamberth’s never-say-die-until-you-do Storyteller are terrific examples of character work. Others in the cast that easily catch the eye and ear include Jordan Ravellette, Leon Blandon, Christian Redden, Jordan Tudor, Megan Roggendorff, Melissa Silengo, Elizabeth Walsh and Ezra Solano.
Musical Director Rollie Mains acquits himself well as usual, in a sense getting to play Paul Shaffer to Davin’s David Letterman by singing as well as playing the keyboard. Also playing the emo-rock infused score with precision and artistry are Luke Easterling on bass, Stefan Superti on guitar and JJ Street on drums.
Caleb Burke’s set is a well-executed combination of wooden platforms and ramps with a picture-laden backdrop featuring US presidents, Mark Twain, Adolph Hitler and others. It’s a character of its own while supporting the actors and story but never stealing focus – perfect.
Other elements such as Teresa Oduor’s costumes, Brandon Webb’s lights, Street and Jason Tucker’s sound and Sarah Levis’ props are also in tip-top form. And joining the Nashville theater community in a very auspicious manner is Director Jason Tucker, whose experienced and obviously gifted hand has made this BBAJ flow like the enthralling rapture of a rushing river.
Unless you’re easily offended (and I feel sorry for you if you are) you’ll find that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Street Theatre Company is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining slice of contemporary musical theater. Cathy Street and her colleagues already have a hard-earned reputation for delivering top professional fare that will only be polished yet again with this superb effort.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson directed by Jason Tucker opens today (March 14) and continues through March 23 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pk. near Briley Parkway). Tickets ($24/$22 for Opening Night – 8 p.m. curtain – which includes a post-show wine and cheese reception sponsored by Woodland Wine Merchant; $22/$20 for Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m.; $20/$18 Saturday matinee, 2 p.m.) are available online by clicking here; every Sunday offers a pay-what-you-can option one half hour before curtain based on availability. In addition to the opening night reception there will be a First Saturday evening post-show talk back with the cast and crew and a Second Friday evening Pride Night featuring a post-show reception for friends from the GLBT community. For more information on this show visit www.streettheatrecompany.org or call (615) 554-7414; it has the theatrical equivalent of an “R” rating for adult content and explicit language.
*Photos by Kenn Stilger/Heavenly Perspective Photography courtesy the photographer and STC.