Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bloody 'ell!

Wow! Who knew that the tousled-haired middle-aged guy on the $20 bill -- our seventh president, Andrew Jackson -- was a rootin' tootin' hottie in tight black jeans, kohl eyeliner, spiky haircut, muscle shirt and boots?

As conceived in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I just caught at the end of its two-weekend run at Westchester Sandbox Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y., politics in the early 19th century featured a resentful populist movement, a tight group of East Coast politicians and a charismatic Western leader, all set to a bitchin' emo-rock score.

In other words, more than a few similarities to today, with echoes of the Bush years. OK, maybe they didn't have emo (emotional hardcore) rock punctuating the 1828 election, which resulted in Jackson's first term as president and the founding of the Democratic Party. But they sure did have emotion, as a young United States of America - just half a century old - was still struggling to find its feet after two wars with Britain.

Bloody Bloody was a sensation in 2010 at the Public Theater off-Broadway but didn't find its audience on Broadway, closing after four months. This was the first New York regional production of the show and a really fine affair it was.

The four-year-old Westchester Sandbox produces both mainstage adult shows and theatre for and with young people in a 100-seat storefront venue. Bloody Bloody was staged by the three-year-old Little Radical Theatrics company, whose mandate is to provide an outlet for 20-something theater artists who are out of high school, possibly in college and possibly heading for professional careers or community theater.

The cast, as directed by Michael J. Mirra, hit just the right note of intense deadpan attitude, as creators Alex Timbers (book and the original production's director) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) urge in their notes for licensed productions.

Jackson and his rag-tag followers - cast members play various politicians (Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams), Indians, citizens - defiantly stake their territory in the opening number, "Populism, Yea, Yea!" as they accuse the educated elite of Massachusetts and Virginia of ignoring the people of the expanding frontier.

The show's charm comes from its skillful layering of modern idioms and styles on a quite serious look at a young nation where a boy from rural Tennessee can rise to be a military hero and president - and a major slave owner and persecutor of the native population. It also skewers an eternally adolescent streak in American politics: deep down, we want our president to be a rock star.

Jackson's rough childhood, during which he was orphaned at 14, joined the military and was captured by the British, is summed up succinctly with the phrase, "Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular." Enraged by Indian attacks on his family and French, Spanish and British control of various territories, Jackson longs for a leader ("I'm Not That Guy") then realizes he will take action ("I'm So That Guy").

The "bloody" of the title was well earned as Jackson took on the British at the Battle of New Orleans, headed up a militia that drove Indian tribes out of the Southeast ("Ten Little Indians") and cleared Spanish and French forces from Florida.

But the minute you think you've got Jackson pegged as more Hitler than hero, the show illuminates his complex personality. The same man who signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocating tribes west of the Mississippi, also adopted a native boy whose parents had been killed in battle. His relationship with his wife, Rachel, was passionately loving and her death - incredibly on the eve of his inauguration - devastated him.

The magnetic BJ Markus, with a fine singing voice, rivetingly played Jackson with more sexy snarl than the handsome Benjamin Walker in the original productions. The entire cast did great work, but particular mention should go to Dany Rousseau's portrait of the strong yet wistful Rachel.

Markus and Mirra are credited with the very effective scenic design - a stage framed with portraits and objects from what look like America's attic. Ricky Romano's five-piece band provided tight accompaniment. However, Mirra's lighting design occasionally left some performers in unfortunate shadows.

Jackson's legacy is controversial even today, but this show, and Green Day's American Idiot, are modern classics that use rock music to make profound comments on American politics and society. Little Radical Theatrics' production brilliantly conveyed the spirit of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

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