Studio Theatre 2nd Stage Bloody Bloody Andrew JacksonBy Genie Baskir • Jul 18th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Studio Theatre 2nd Stage
Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Through August 19th
105 minutes no intermission
Reviewed July 15th, 2012
Combine junk history with historical half truth and cherry picked details sans context and the result is the libelous and profane Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Studio Theatre 2nd Stage. The premise seems to be that Jackson is some sort of rock star in Vincent Furnier and Brian Warner guyliner (look it up) and the writer (Alex Timbers) and composer (Michael Friedman) use 21st century sensibilities to present an 18th century real figure as they would prefer to see him as opposed to who he really was in the context of his times. Fair enough, I suppose, to take some license, but fraudulent when the show suggests that Jackson would be seen historically as some sort of “American Hitler” when no one else ever saw this but the writer and composer who made it up. The reference to Hitler itself demonstrates an absence of creative juice. I don’t argue that Jackson was really such a nice guy, but Josef Stalin, or more to the point, Slobodan Milosovic may be the more applicable analogy. However, the mish mash of history serves somewhat as an analogy to today; Jackson represents the unwashed 99% against the fashionable 1% and the narrative alludes to that as often as it can. He is his own Occupy movement. And where are the vampires?
While Jackson’s treatment of and hostility to the American Indian Nations is unabashedly shameful, making up stories about Jackson’s early years doesn’t serve to explain his antipathy to the indigenous peoples of North America and the actual events of his early years don’t make him any less of a nonconformist or crazy fighter and warrior. His love life takes a beating too. The real truth is that Andrew Jackson was a figure so large and so heroic that his history needs no corruption to keep an audience awake. The same actors can sing the same songs and the truth would be more exciting, actually, than a life contrived to fit the falsehoods of the writer and composer. It is not a long way from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to outright Holocaust denial if a lyricist can’t get the right words to rhyme.
All that being said I did enjoy the show. It was good as fiction, but I’m not sure everyone else realized it is fiction. Heath Calvert as Jackson carried the burden of presenting an idea of a man instead of the man and succeeded on the fictional level made up sort of like a zombie. The directors assume that no one wants a straight story and so Jackson’s contemporaries are equally libeled…this is actually very funny. Matt Dewberry as Henry Clay prances around as one of the foppish dandies of mainstream politics with a big stuffed weasel. His facial expressions and his handling of the weasel throughout lighten the load of you know what being put forth as history. Some contemporary pundits and opinionators have been claiming that Martin Van Buren was the first Gay American President and Timbers and Friedman run with that; Davis Hasty is sufficiently fey and stereotypical mincing around as Jackson’s epicene Secretary of State and later, Vice President and, ultimately, his successor. All of this is very funny from Jackson’s point of view and these interpretations of the power structure are very clever. This concept of the eastern politicians and speechifiers is worth the ticket price…..lol.
However, John Quincy Adams was a Jackson supporter after the First Seminole War and it was Adams’ support that saved Jackson’s commission, so the sissified treatment of Adams here seems somewhat gratuitous when all is said and done. The myth of Andrew Jackson entices us to see him as some sort of truth telling vulgarian, but he was still a politician and very much a gentleman. Old Hickory’s representation of and allegiance to the common citizen did not render him common himself. He and Adams were unlikely political allies and the progenitors of a national outlook that later came to be known as Manifest Destiny. Since the story lacks that little detail, the details we do get are meaningless and thus there is no understanding of what motivated Jackson, in any of his fictional incarnations, as this narrative advances. Jackson was born on the frontier but he was no roughneck and every portrait, daguerreotype and photo of him present a gentleman. Perhaps he remembered Daniel Shays and the outcome of that insurrection; or possibly the Whiskey Rebellion, predicated on a Hamiltonian plan to retire the national debt. Unfortunately that plan would have compromised the living of the frontier farmers to the benefit of the eastern planters and farmers. Jackson was an egalitarian in the face of John Adams Monarchic Administration. There is no doubt that Jackson saw his later Presidential loss to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives as a “we wuz robbed” event; but the details are more nuanced than a Marilyn Manson wannabee’s smutty rant.
While the male performances are pretty strong, the female performances devolve into some sort of Game of Thrones male fantasy of women and of what to do with too many women. This story is boy candy for Wayne’s World boys and the women are not necessary to the narrative as it exists here. I believe it is highly unlikely that, in any reality, a bored Andrew Jackson would have ordered any superfluous, loitering women to commence sexual engagement in front of God and everyone. Rachel Zampelli Jackson as Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson is relegated to being a whiny and nagging wife. The factual swift boating of Rachel as a bigamist and Andrew’s offense at these political and professional attacks do not belie their love and devotion to one another. She was a bigamist in the same way that President Obama may have been born in Kenya. Rachel Jackson was a frontier woman and she knew that combo Indian fighters, major generals, United States Senators and planters were not often home. A wife is superfluous to the story related here because no one expects a voyeuristic and pornish rock star to stay faithful to the little woman running the plantation back home; and the historical Jackson is known to have been faithful to his wife…in the absence of any contradictory research. A cursory listen to 1776 would have cleared up a whole lot of stuff for the writer and composer. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter would have provided a better historiographic template.
Jackson was not without Indian friends. The Cherokee Nation, in particular, embraced education and diplomacy and the historical Jackson had friendly relations with Cherokee Chief John Ross and the Cherokee warrior, Major Ridge. Ross and Ridge also presented themselves in the gentlemen’s dress of the day. In this show an Indian named Black Hawk (Ryan Sellers) is presented as a turncoat responsible for the deaths of many of his people in his capacity as Jackson’s faithful Indian friend; later he turns on Jackson to form a coalition of warriors to fight Jackson. Sellers is set forth in some sort of cartoon native garb meant to show off his dancer’s physique. Sellers is not a bad actor in this; the storyline just makes no sense artistically as well as historically and any actor in this role is set up to fail because this side story is just plain silly. The show is channeling Tonto (Native American actor Jay Silverheels, nee Harold J. Smith) and Hollywood hash instead of accurately portraying Indian leaders and diplomats in the appropriate and formal attire as they so represented themselves. The Indian Nations in general and the Cherokee Nation, in particular, had agency and any allusions otherwise are insulting.
The music is pretty good in the Rentish and Spring Awakeningish method of composition. The vocals are good and, again, Calvert carries this show. The choreography is a whole lot of running and jumping and running around the room. There is a very clever take off of Swan Lake and no history of the expansion of the North American frontier can be illustrated without Madonna, Cher and Michael Jackson, those Indian fighting, prairie schooner driving, westward pioneers. A check of the Production Staff notes a Set Designer. That’s news to me; but the lighting was gorgeous. The musical accompaniment was excellent and the songs are not bad. Call this a frontier operetta put on by a television mimicking high school glee club.
The show is not bad; but it represents a distortion of history while advancing ignorance of a people’s history that reverberates today. Surely we all deserve better than this. In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Edmond O’Brien, portraying a newspaper editor and publisher, burns his notes saying, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The grandeur and personal weaknesses of Andrew Jackson in truth and in legend are exciting enough without such lewd revision.
The Storyteller (Felicia Curry) asserts that you can’t shoot history in the neck. Yeah, you can.
Photos by Scotty Beland
- Andrew Jackson: Heath Calvert
- The Storyteller: Felicia Curry
- Rachel Jackson: Rachel Zampelli Jackson
- Martin Van Buren: Davis Hasty
- Henry Clay: Matt Dewberry
- James Monroe: Ben Horen
- John Calhoun: Pomme Koch
- John Quincy Adams: Alex Mills
- Black Hawk: Ryan Sellers
- Lyncoya: Eli Schulman
- Ensemble: Katy Carkuff, Esther Covington, Maria Egler, John Fritz, Aaron Keith, Emily Levey, Katie McManus, Rob Mueller, Ryan Patrick Walsh
- Director: Keith Alan Baker
- Co Directors: Christopher Gallu, Jennifer Harris
- Music Director: Christopher Youstra
- Chroegrapher: Diane Coburn Bruning
- Set Design: Giorgios Tsappes
- Lighting Design: Justin Thomas
- Projection Design: Erik Trestor
- Sound Design: Aaron Fisher
- Costume Design: Ivania Stack
Disclaimer: Studio Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8300.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.