Review: Brilliant, Brilliant Andrew Jackson Opens at Speakeasy Stage, Boston

First workshopped in the Berkshires in 2006, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson (BBAJ) went on to a successful Public Theatre off-Broadway production in 2009, but it then ended up losing $4.5 million when it transferred to Broadway. Above, author Alex Timbers talks about his New York production in a PBS video with some snippets of that production. BBAJ never belonged on a big Broadway stage. The audience demographics were not right. This is a show that is both intense and personal, with an undeniable appeal to younger theatre-goers.

Having Speakeasy Stage take it on is a perfect marriage of the professional and the contemporary.

Speakeasy’s production illuminates the inner soul of this hybrid musical and has an audience demographic to match. Some older audiences will take it too literally, and this is a musical that requires an audience that enjoys its comedy not with jokes, but filled with irony, using theatrical devices that verge on the ridiculous and delicious rock music that is delivered somewhat tongue in cheek, a musical pastiche that recognizes other styles and eras just for the fun of it. In short, this is not your grandma’s kind of musical theatre, it is frisky, fresh and dangerously different. See it once and you will be tempted to see it again.

Populism, Yea, Yea! — Gus Curry (center, white shirt) and the cast of the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, running now thru Nov. 17 in Boston. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

This comedic take on the 7th President of the United States, Andew Jackson (1767-1845) explores his great but ill-timed love for Rachel (Alessandra Veganek), his hatred for Indians (he slaughtered or resettled 46,000 Native Americans) and his political career. Gus Curry plays the title role with incredible energy and authority.

The tumultuous unfolding benefits from an intimate setting to bring the audience into the story. At the Calderwood Pavillion of the BCA you are close enough to see the sweat dripping off the actors but not so close as to get splattered by the bloody, bloody packet(s) of stage blood. There is much action to dramatize the violence of our first macho president, the one who disdained the political establishment, the urban elite and intellectuals like James Monroe (Ben Rosenblatt), Martin Van Buren (Joshua Pemberton), Henry Clay (Dlego Klock-Perez), John Calhoun (Ryan Halsaver) and John Quincy Adams (Tom Hamlett).

Back in his day there were no women voters, nor any voters of color for that matter. Elections were real rough and tumble affairs, and Jackson was a scrapper and found support in the uninformed rabble. (It wasn’t until 1918 that all American children were require to attend at least elementary school.) Rough hewn Jackson connected with the under-educated, and they liked him because they felt he knew their wishes without stating exactly what that might be.

Where to put this emo-rock musical in the exploding categories of theatre is not an easy call. To me it is a hyper-musical allegory, part truth, part fiction and guesswork. The book is written by Alex Timbers who is young enough to remember his classroom days, and much of the exposition is delivered in classroom style, as if we just read the Cliff Notes and were faking the rest. It is filled with vernacular speech fresh from the 21st Century, which is overlaid on the 19th in which Jackson lived, and fills the theatre with dripping irony and luscious sarcasm. The sometimes snarky dialogue by Timbers is half the fun of it. There are a hundred little witticisms buried in the ongoing rush of words. Look quickly, is that one of the establishment politicians carrying a weasel? The metaphors and allusions will delight the quick witted literary types.

As a play, the complexities of the narrative would be enough to hold your interest for the duration, but Timbers and Company take the whole enterprise up to a higher level with a brilliant, often funny, score that has the heartbeat of rock and the prankiness of the English Music Hall. The work of Michael Friedman, the composer/lyricist has stradded the dividing line between traditional musicals and serious rock with a series of numbers that embrace the best of both.

The songs flow organically, the scenes change seamlessly, and the cast – and what a fabulous cast of young energetic performers they’ve found – simply takes all this great material and soars.

Gus Curry in a scene from the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

As Andrew Jackson, Gus Curry makes not only his Speakeasy debut, but shows he is as adept at creating new musical roles as in mastering the traditional ones. He is a force to witness on stage, both in his ability to fill the boots of America’s first populist and founder of the Democratic Party, and his ability to convince ordinary people to vote for him despite his shallow understanding of the real issues. There are political overtones all through BBAJ. As Jackson, Curry’s best moment is when he throws up his hands in dismay and asks: “Why can’t the people make up their mind!” Even 150 years ago most issues were too complex and nuanced for people to figure out, and so then – as now – far too many people made up their minds on the basis of half-truth sound bites.

There are just 14 songs in BBAJ, half written for the lead, the rest for various members of the ensemble. But truly it’s the onstage band of four, sometimes supplemented with brass and reeds that provides a solid foundation for the cast. From the opening rush of the main theme song, “Populism Yea, Yea,” to the more melancholy “Ten Little Indians,” you just want the music to go on forever. The first reaches inside and stirs your soul, while the second tears your heart. When Curry emotes the lyrics of “I’m So That Guy” you want to follow him into the future and save America.

(L) Gus Curry as Andrew Jackson tries to figure out how to handle Mary Callanan (The Storyteller) in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in Boston. Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Characters abound in the story, including the Storyteller brilliantly played by Mary Callanan. As a wheelchair bound lesbian who provides the “voice over” for the ongoing story she excels making her character an annoyingly chirpy, narrator. She interrupts the proceedings, filling in some actual facts about Jackson while talking about the girl she loves with the blue pickup. Halfway through the show, as she reveals some truths which the Presidential candidate would rather bury, he unholsters his gun and shoots her in the neck. Through the magic of theatre, she returns to haunt him anyway.

Near the end, as Wiki aptly describes it, the play reviews Jackson’s legacy and the views attributed to him. Some believe he was one of America’s greatest presidents, while others believe him to be an “American Hitler”. The final scene shows Jackson receiving an honorary doctorate at Harvard. He reflects upon his achievements and his questionable decisions. The show telescopes out and we get a bird’s eye view of Jackson’s damning legacy and our collective culpability.

It is here that the Bandleader, Nicholas James Connell, who has led his tightly knit ensemble to glory, takes a turn at the microphone singing “Second Nature,” but his detached, mechanical delivery turned out of be a bit of a disappointment. In every other respect Connell as Music Director for the Company did this production proud.

Andrew Jackson (Gus Curry, far left) takes on the Washington Establishment (from left: Joshua Pemberton, Ben Rosenblatt, Tom Hamlett and Ryan Halsaver in a scene from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

I was impressed how production director Paul Melone managed to coax the company into overdrive, thereby keeping the energy level high, and keeping the complex tale rushing towards its conclusion without any pileups. With the frantic pace, and a zillion props being introduced a few things went askew, and other than a minor stumble or two, the only real serious mishap I noted at the performance was a blood packet misfiring.

If you go, one of the big delights you can look forward to is the barroom fight scene that takes place early on, and involves the entire cast. We have all seen fists and props fly around on stage before, but fight choreographer Angie Jepson has set the bar higher than ever before. With fight captain Amy Spalletta this marvelously choreographed scene alone is reason enough to see this show. Since these scenes get better with repetition, it is also reason to see the whole show again towards the end of the run. The extended scene has an intricacy and daring worth enjoying more than once.

Of course the Set by Eric Levinson for BBAJ was not as elaborate as that of the larger Broadway production, but happily echoed the best elements of it, without overwhelming the scene-setting taking place on stage. The lighting by Jeff Adelberg was a brilliant blend of the theatrical and rock concert worlds, which is frankly no small achievement. The sound design by Eric Norris needs some time to settle in, and for the sound board operator to become intimate with it. Afterwards I spoke with some audience members who felt the band overwhelmed the singers, though I felt the balance was very close to perfect, while some cues were slow on the pickup. In a show like this, which mixes past, present and future, there is no right or wrong when it comes to costumes and so the choices made by Elisabetta Polito were all functional and appropriate.

When you take all the various pieces of the production and put them together on stage, a show becomes its own creation, unique and special. Let there be no doubt that this work, which began its life in the Berkshires at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has grown, expanded and matured. From its humble beginnings it has morphed from a fledgeling concept (with possibilities) into something pretty special. Don’t miss this firecracker of a show. It’s going to be a long time before you will see anything quite as wonderful. It really should be called Brilliant Brilliant Andrew Jackson!.

Speakeasy Stage Company presents Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson written by ALex Timbers, Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman, Directed by Paul Melone. Music Direction by Nicholas James Connnell. Choreography by Larry Sousa. Fight Choreography by Angie Jepso with sets by Eric Levenson, Costumes by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting by Jeff Adelberg, Sound by Eric Norris. Cast: Brandon Barbosa, Samil Battenfeld, Mary Callanan, Nicholas James Connell, Gus Curry, Ryan Halsaver, Tom Hamlett, Amy Jo Jackson, DIego Klock-Perez, Michael Levesque, Evan Murphy, Joshua Pemberton, Ben Rosenblatt, Alessandra Vaganek and Brittany Walters. about 95 minutes with no intermission. Oct. 19 – Nov. 17, 2012 Stanford Calderwood Pavillion at the Boston Center for the Arts. 527 Tremont Street, Boston. Tix/Info: 617-933-8600 or SpeakEasyStage.com

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