“Remember, bloody is only a metaphor!” we are shouted at several times in the imaginative, entertaining, at times shocking “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Dominion Stage. A semi- historical rock opera that isn’t sure how seriously to take itself, it’s a challenging balancing act for the troupe in Arlington.
Taking the life and times of Andrew Jackson, our warlike seventh president—likely little known, aside from being the guy on the 20-dollar bill–is not the usual material one would think of for a rocking good time. And we are exposed to Emo, an offshoot of hardcore rock containing a mix of punk and in your face lyrics marked by emotional outbursts of teen angst. (This show was actually created in 2010, 5-6 years before Hamilton) and received quirky-good reviews but only a brief run. Theatergoers didn’t know what to make of this upstart rock history-drama with a splash of free-flowing “Godspell” and a touch of hardscrabble “Rent.”
… a mixed bag, so be ready to be taken somewhere!
The musical takes us on a quick tour of some of the highlights–and low points –in this profoundly intriguing historical figure’s life, with particular attention to his treatment of Native Americans, focusing on his battles on the frontier, and the forced relocation policy, which is known in American history as the Trail of Tears. The historical elements bounce around and would give a continuity person the heebie-jeebies, but it follows Jackson’s two presidential campaigns and his election as a populist president, a person of the people. Echoing some of today’s political currents, it also, in a tone deaf way, reflects some of the offensive and in-your-face reactions to our current president. The challenge is that the musical attempts at times also to be pointed and meaningful with only partial success.
Back to the bloody events… there is even an odd kind of romance: When Jackson meets Rachel, his future wife (an effective, Elvira-like Lindsey Litka) they sing about “Illness as Metaphor,” and bleed each other. “Sometimes on the battlefield, and I’m covered in blood and I have terrible dysentery and diarrhea, I think of you,” Jackson intones to Rachel at one point. Such a charmer!
Matt Calvert as Andrew Jackson plays the man-child caricature well and shows a good command of the stage as the populist force of nature. With a swath of red hair and a leather jacket, he was the epitome of a grunge band lead singer. His voice was adequate and blended well in the demanding whirl of scenes that created constant movement, courtesy of Director Danielle Guy, who was conscious of the sensitivities in the depiction of Native Indians and did not implement traditional costumes. Yet, in a show such as this, control and restraint are at odds with the material. A tough challenge.
The other actors that had notable parts in the frenzy were Morgan DeHart as snarky John Quincy Adams, Melanie Kurstin as the Storyteller, Danny Frumento as a great sendup as an oh so precious Van Buren. Set Design by Amber Kilpatrick was an open amalgam of boxes and other flags and drapes on the walls, adding to the amorphous setting.
The music is certainly different than usual Broadway scores, and unlike other rock musicals, the decibel level is manageable (though some lyrics were still lost). This is due in part to the small 5 piece band, with Music Directors Robbie Taylor and David Weintraub–also part of the band–that did not overpower the cast, yet had to deal with the small black box theatre’s acoustics. Some of the actors interact with the onstage band, while Michael Gale and Meghan Bentley pair up to give us one of the score’s finest songs, a folksy “Second Nature.”
“Bloody Bloody’s…” look at the life of a complicated, flawed man and his tarnished legacy through comedy and rock is a mixed bag, so be ready to be taken somewhere!
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is at Dominion Stage from January 31 Feb 15, 2020, at Dominion’s Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington VA. For tickets, call the box office at (571) 377-4697, or online.