A ‘Bloody’ good time
Nearly 10 years before there was “Hamilton,” another Broadway offering plucked a pivotal and controversial figure out of American history textbooks. The show immersed him in an explosive musical score with provocative lyrics, and in the slick re-telling of his story managed to offer insights on the contemporary U.S. political scene.
That musical was “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
A couple of weeks ago, by coincidence, I caught the national tour of “Hamilton” in Los Angeles. (Yes, finally!) The L.A production was all I expected in terms of musical impact, stagecraft and sheer theatrical presence. So when I saw the fiery new production of “Andrew Jackson” at College of the Sequoias last weekend, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast these two historical musicals. You can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison, of course; one is likely the most polished professional Broadway experience you can see these days; the other is a junior-college production that in some cases uses first-time performers. And Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics in “Hamilton” are simply breathtakingly beautiful. They deserve every superlative that has been slung their way: groundbreaking, memorable, highest artistic achievement, etc.
Then I think about the actual books of the two shows. I consider the narrative structures, the economies of storytelling, the uses of humor, the philosophical takeaways. It’s quite a matchup. With the earlier musical’s conscious intention not to stuff in too much plot — and, most of all, its wry, subversive and satirical cutting tone — I realize that while I might admire “Hamilton” with greater intensity, I actually like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” a little more. It’s daring, profane and sometimes completely over the top, even exasperatingly so. But in terms of creative spark, I found myself more drawn to our $20 bill than the $10 version. Old Hickory just has that way about him.
That was Andrew Jackson’s nickname, of course, and the character is played by an idealized version of him: young, strutting, buff and supremely confident. Michael Seitz in the COS version is key to the production’s success. He brings a charisma and briskness to the stage that has you believing he could crawl his way up from humble frontier roots to overpowering the entrenched political establishment of the United States.
In the opening number, “Populism, Yea, Yea!,” we learn the basis of Jackson’s appeal: power to the people. Crass and unrestrained, he feels disdain for the nascent aristocracy that seems to be forming in the newly declared republic. (He loathes President Washington, for one thing.) In a series of crisp vignettes, we meet some of the important people in Jackson’s life (his mother and father, his wife, his political nemeses, his toadies, his son). And we get a feel for the populist movement that he (mostly) controls, which results in him not only getting elected as the seventh president of the United States but fighting to tip the balance of our three-branches-of-government arrangement to a more powerful executive.
Director Chris Mangels, assisted by an enthusiastic and daring creative team (Imara Quiñonez as choreographer, Steve Lamar as lighting designer and James McDonnell as costume/hair designer), creates for his student actors a crackling sense of stagecraft. This production has enthusiasm and energy in abundance, from very fine supporting performances to a rabble-rousing chorus (“the populace”) pumping fists and tearing through the White House at every opportunity. Cheyenne Breashears as a memorable Rachel Jackson (she sings a beautiful “The Great Compromise”); Gio Adaoag as a conflicted Black Fox; Jack O’Leary as Martin Van Buren and others; and Becka Cole in a variety of roles. (And while Seitz demonstrates a great range and good vocals as the title character, one thing he could work on is his comic timing; he tends to be a little stiff with his humor and draw out his laugh/applause lines too long.)
Does “Andrew Jackson” beatify its namesake? Hardly. That’s partly what gives the show such thrust and power. Jackson’s excesses are thoroughly chronicled, from his role in wiping out Native American tribes to his disdain for constitutional checks and balances. These are the rough edges of populism, it seems.
One of the show’s most haunting moments comes in the song “Ten Little Indians,” in which the excesses of Jackson’s policies are foreshadowed. Tamla Quipse, who later sings a stellar duet with Adaoag on a similar theme, offers a disquieting countdown of the fate that will befall thousands of Native Americans. (I like Quipse’s rendition of the song even better than the original cast album.) The small live band adds a lot of pep to the production.
Through all this, Mangels doesn’t shy away from the populist elephant in the room. With a series of video projections, we get both a stream of Twitter-like updates from “@TheRealAndyJax” and a Fox News-like series of video reports. For me, this is the only directorial conceit of the show that wobbles. Making too explicit a connection between Jackson and the current president of the United States, while tempting and often funny, can make the satire seem overdone and even plodding. (And the “populism” espoused by our current executive is in many ways so far removed from Jackson’s original intent that any comparison seems faltering.) The Twitter/TV spots also seem jarring because they’re so modern-invasive; I much preferred the use in one scene of an old-time radio to provide election updates, which seemed pleasingly anachronistic in a good way.
Still, I admire the pluck and verve of the production and the seditious nature of the experience. The show lives up to its name, both literally and figuratively, with a scene in which Andrew and Rachel cut themselves and bleed all over each other. It’s a reminder that politics can be a bloodsport. That’s the case whether it’s 1828 or 2017.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, and Friday, Nov. 17; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18; College of the Sequoias Theatre,
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Thank you, Donald. Makes me wish I didn’t have to miss this one.