What I liked best about “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the musical onstage for three more weekends at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, is its refusal to go for the cheap shots—except when it does. Given the time frame of the show’s genesis (2006-2008), it would have been easy to make all its political digs point directly at the Tea Party and its dubious “populist” roots. But many of the allusions apply equally to any candidate or organization that paints itself as being “about the people.”
Because it all comes down to “which people?” And, as we all know, people change.
Andrew Jackson (Scott Shaw) our seventh president, swaggers onto the set in tight pants and guyliner and immediately begins interacting with “the people,” who in this case are the audience. “I feel that sexual vibe,” he says to one young woman. He takes a young man’s cell phone and advises him he’ll get it back…at some point. (A lot of this opening monologue is a snarky way to get in the usual pre-show warnings.)
Then the company launches into “Populism, Yea, Yea!” and we’re off to the emo-meets-American-frontier races, an unrelentingly energetic whirlwind of anachronisms, actual history and Twinkie-eating politicians, accompanied by the seriously rockin’ (White) House Band (Jason Whitehead, Erik Gehrke, Dustin Smoote, Nathan King).
The show follows Jackson’s life from the death of most of his family, to his early (age 13) army experience, to his rise as a successful, ruthless and defiant military leader, to his decision to enter politics (fueled by hatred of what he saw as the effeminate aristocrats running the country). Along the way, we get glimpses of his relationship with his beloved Rachel.
Tall, lean and tousle-haired, Scott has the rock-star glam down, which is lucky, because the show depends on the charisma oozing from its lead. If he doesn’t have the Freddie Mercury-class voice to match, well, who does? And he knows how to sell a song with what he’s got. I actually liked him best during the second act, when Jackson devolves into demagogue. The sincerity with which he assures Black Fox (Nathaniel Garth), the Native American leader who supports then subverts him, that “it’s gonna happen anyway” (as in the massive land grab and genocide Jackson engineered) is chilling.
Stefanie Oppenheimer plays the wheelchair-bound Storyteller, who infuriates Jackson by constantly interrupting with pieces of “real history” despite his attempts to off her. Good for creator Alex Timbers for blatantly inserting her, and double good for Oppenheimer for making her earnestness hilarious.
Lizzie Chazen’s kinda clueless Rachel hits the mark, and her duet with AJ in the first act, “Illness As Metaphor” (backed up by Justin Bridges and David Coulter) is funny and creepy to the max. She also sings plaintively in the second-act opener, “The Great Compromise,” of just wanting a little home “and some slaves.”
The large company plays multiple roles and all add to the production’s strengths, but Garth, Bridges, Cody Keown, Emily White and, especially, Stacy Helton as a particularly out-there Martin Van Buren, really spin its wheels.
The show is another triumph for director Scott Dunlap, who excels with this kind of modern musical, and who, as usual, has auteur’d costumes, light and sound as well. (The fur stole worn by Thomas Hawtin as Henry Clay pretty much becomes a character on its own.)
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is the kind of piece you can simply enjoy as a fun evening of high-powered musical theatre—and nothing wrong with that. But if, like this writer, you can’t help thinking about the history that inspired it…since we live in the midst of the consequences of it every day…take this along for the ride:
• The infant “Wall Street” is referred to in a way that suggests it is soulless and potentially sociopathic.
• When the president actually encounters “the people” he so vigorously claims to represent, he finds they don’t know what they want—and that he really doesn’t like them very much.
• The 1% run the country and pull dirty tricks (including rigging an election) to make sure they continue to do so.
• Andrew Jackson finds out that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Sound a’ tall familiar?
• And finally, that the man Andrew Jackson was a complex individual who adopted a Native American child at the same time he was massacring entire tribes, who really was the “man who put the man in Manifest Destiny” and yet loved his wife dearly. As the show asks: Great president or American Hitler?
Sometimes, even in musicals, there are no easy answers. Yea, yea! to the CTC for a show that asks the questions.
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
$18 • 8 p.m. June 28-29, July 5-6, 12-13
Chattanooga Theatre Centre, Circle Stage, 400 River St.
(423) 267-8534, theatrecentre.com