Thursday, October 11, 2012

REVIEW: 'BLOODY' FRUSTRATING - 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' by Bailiwick Chicago

Photo: Michael Brosilow

During my four years in college, I witnessed two different street mobs: one on the night of Barack Obama’s election victory and another in the immediate aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination. Oddly enough, from a bird’s eye view, the quality of euphoria was unchanged from mob to mob. Each had the same happy-irate cheers, the same sorts of signage, the same shapeless crowd with blurred purpose, and even many of the same participants – but the context was exactly opposite. Though respectively celebrating a win and a death, the justification for both energized demonstrations was that the people had reigned victorious.

Months later, news channels rolled footage of some other mobs – Occupy Wall Street protests and Tea Party rallies. Two gatherings, demographically opposed, both railed against the overreaching powers of the elite minority. Each group viewed themselves as the defacto representative of we the people in an era of smoky back room deals between the wealthy, the detached and entitled. “This is the age of Jackson,” all right.

"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," a work that brilliantly chronicles the rise of American populism and effortlessly captures that enduring mob mentality, is my favorite musical of the past decade. I first saw it at the Public Theater in 2010, and, shocked into submission by its originality and intellect, payed a return visit to its Broadway run in 2011. A fusion of sophomoric comedy (more Judd Apatow than Neil Simon), killer tunes (more Weezer and Brecht than Rodgers and Hammerstein), and the most astute political commentary onstage in years, in my mind, no other musical approaches its grungy stylistic rebellion. And with a bold injection of crass humor, the play stays humbly down to earth and converses with pop culture’s comedy in a manner previously unheard of. The Will Ferrell-esque embrace of vicious stereotype, coarse language, and vaudevillian sight gag will be a turn off to many, but that’s another important development of “Bloody Bloody” – a proud rejection of musical theatre’s typically desired broad appeal.

Bailiwick Chicago's new production of the musical, which opened on Monday night at the National Pastime Theater, is unfortunately not a riotous success like its Off Broadway and Broadway predecessors, both which radiated intelligence and off-the-charts rambunctiousness – especially on stuffy old Broadway. The Chicago premiere, directed by Scott Ferguson, fails to fully grasp the work’s prescient satire, choosing instead to replace Alex Timbers’ impeccably crafted book’s humor, which blends 1830's and modern day America, with much broader style than the script necessitates. Though adequately enjoyable, Ferguson's winking production comments more so on the play itself than the present state of our political affairs.

Truth be told, much of the piece’s wit and voice literally cannot be heard. Jeff Dublinske's messy sound design, replete with accidental but appropriate feedback and eardrum-bleeding volume, goes much too quiet on the spoken dialogue and lyrics. The written jokes – such as hilarious moments from “The Corrupt Bargain,” a music hall number, which Ferguson, for no perceivable reason, has three female singers puppeteer John Calhoun (Mark LeBeau), John Quincy Adams (Tanner Smale), and Henry Clay (Varris Holmes), as though the politicians were unwitting pawns in their own dastardly deeds – could not be heard clearly enough to understand the puns.  I suppose that sound diffusion is a necessary sacrifice for the hip atmosphere of the cavernous National Pastime Theater, which suits the play and Nick Sieben's visually appealing, dingy Americana set extremely well. Not to mention the sexy garage concert attitude of the five-person band, pumping out Michael Friedman's innovative score. But it’s a major drawback for a comedy with integral punch lines.

While borrowing a hoard of gags from Alex Timbers’ original production - including most everything that the spunky, scooter-riding Storyteller (Judy Lea Steele) does - Scott Ferguson has claustrophobically crammed his staging with far too much traditional choreography (by Christopher Pazdernik) and a whole storage closet of distracting props. The director has veered his cast in a similarly perplexing direction. Samantha Dubina pushes aggressively against the humor of wife, Rachel Jackson, and digs for an awkward amount of unearned, bombastic depth in the process. Also, while there is already plenteous gay humor in the script, it seemed as though every secondary character took on an effeminate exterior, diminishing opportunities for character variance. To be sure, much of the satire relies on a deft ensemble, but the spirit of the play – a comedic discourse on how and why we choose our leaders – sweats forth in the grounding central performance of Matt Holzfeind as Andrew Jackson.

Holzfeind's crafty departure from actor Benjamin Walker's portrayal is most present in his southern dialect, recalling the muscularity and folksy warmth of President Bush, another no-nonsense dude you'd like to have a beer with. Holzfeind's vocal alteration does not decide which politician Jackson most apparently parallels in our eyes, but it allows an electorate with Obama on the mind to see Timbers' Jackson for what he really is - a reflection of every political career. Like all political arcs, Jackson’s campaign is all fun and games, but grim reality sets in once he takes his seat in the Oval Office. Holzfeind renders that dire shift with emotional dexterity, and is the only true standout element of Bailiwick’s production.

The musical, already having had a national production before Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, rings loudly of the feel good vibes that come from supporting an outsider. At this very moment, Mitt Romney and the President are both tirelessly attempting to evoke that exact same feeling in rust belt states – spending their millions to contort public opinion to see them as the more in-touch, middle class candidate. But there are deep shades of the Bush, Clinton, and Reagan years present in the play as well. 

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is not a biography of Andrew Jackson, after all. Much of the play’s history is fabricated and overemphasized, and its silly delivery reflects that obvious fact. There aren't any powdered wigs or velvet coats here. 1830’s President Andrew Jackson is wearing tight, tight skinny jeans (costumes by Kate Setzer Kamphausen), cavorts around like a rock star with an acoustic guitar, and Sarah Palin never ever said “I can see Russia from my house.” Satire is a larger form of comedy than mere historical recreation. "Bloody Bloody" is a musical about the American people and their timeless, unmoving consistencies. Andrew Jackson’s presidency will be forever marred by the Indian Removal Act and the resulting Trail of Tears and Second Seminole War, but the fact is that, at the time, white Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of claiming Native land unrightfully as their own. As is said in the show, “We’re glad that he did that, but we definitely don’t condone it.” Sound familiar?  

As Jackson gives his last public speech and receives an honorary doctorate at Harvard University, Old Hickory reiterates his legacy as the lights slowly fade down on a corroded, decrepit figure unrecognizable from the charismatic tween we loved so early in the play. The chilling final scene leaves the audience pondering that information-be-damned gut feeling we so often go with at the polling place. But behind Holzfeind, in this licensed edition of the script, is a realized enactment of the Trail of Tears – an awful move on the part of the writers. 

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”s greatest strength is its presentation of situational realities through fiction - Jackson, a middle aged man, is portrayed as a whiny adolescent who wants what he wants when he wants it. And the system that Jackson seeks to reform is envisioned as incompetent and cartoonishly evil -  further allowing the audience to evaluate the murky circumstances for themselves. Was Jackson one of America's great presidents or an American Hitler? But the writers' newly added manipulative ending sequence resolutely makes that decision for us and lets the musical's main character, the American people, off the hook. -Johnny Oleksinski

'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' by Bailiwick Chicago runs at the New National Pastime Theater through November 10.

CORRECTION: The Trail of Tears image alluded to in the final paragraphs was added to the licensed script after I saw 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' in 2011. The alteration was previously credited in this review to Mr. Ferguson, but has since been altered to reflect its true authorship.