Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rowdy rock musical about the life of our seventh president. It earned raves and crowds off-Broadway but on Broadway, it quickly folded. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s the most energetic, most daring show Theatre Three has presented in years.
- Front Row review
- Edge review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- KERA radio review:
- Expanded online review:
[music starts under] But the show is also a mess. But that seems part of the point.
[song: “The Hunters of Kentucky”]
This is “The Hunters of Kentucky” from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The song was originally written in 1821, celebrating the riflemen and frontiersmen who were considered vulgar outsiders at the time, barely civilized (“We are a hardy free-born race, each man to fear a stranger / Whate’er the game we join in chase, despising toil and danger.”)
The song sounds bouncy enough but it actually was a defiant campaign cheer for Andrew Jackson, recalling his victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans (where frontier riflemen played a role). Jackson was our first backwoods president, rough and uncompromising. He was a spokesman for all the Westerners and hillfolk who felt excluded by the New England merchant kings and Virginia aristocrats who’d created our young republic. That may sound like a lot of old-timey history, but as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson repeatedly makes plain, Jackson’s common-man contempt for Washington insiders can sound as familiar today as Fox News.
It’s a surprise anyone thought this musical would make it on Broadway. The show has a lot to annoy the typical tried-and-true Broadway audience: the raucous music from composer Michael Friedman, the wall-to-wall profanity and a snarky, freewheeling theatricality, courtesy of bookwriter Alex Timbers, artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier. They’re the wonderfully smart-ass off-Broadway company that brought us A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. The Brothers Corbusier have specialized in historical-critical-pop-cultural mash-ups like these. In fact, an earlier show was even called President Harding is a Rock Star, which is pretty much the premise here: An American political figure is re-cast in terms of contemporary celebrity, and we examine it in terms both highbrow (quips about Susan Sontag — in a musical!) and lowbrow (penis jokes!).
Put another way: Imagine if the cable channel Comedy Central had taken over your American history class and began staging puppet shows and dance numbers. The following scene is a rare, tender moment for Jackson. The Battle of New Orleans has made him a military hero, and he reunites with Rachel, his long-suffering wife, the love of his life.
Cameron Cobb: “Sometimes when I’m alone on the battlefield and I’m covered in blood and I have terrible dysentery and diarrhea – I think of you.”
Andrew Jackson is not all smart-mouthed jokes. Treating Jackson as a rock star is just the start of this show’s re-imaginings of our democracy. America has always held out the hope of re-invention, and this impoverished, orphaned child of the frontier re-invents himself (“I’m So That Guy”), becoming a popular embodiment of resentment against elites and foreigners. But while that may be a path to power, it’s not a way to govern, as Jackson ruefully learns. He looks back at presidential ‘celebrities’ like George Washington and sees how they too were burdened by political limits and unpopular decisions.
From the song ‘Rock Star’: “Why don’t you just shoot me in the head? / ‘Cause you know I’d be better off dead / If there’s no place in America / For a celebrity of the first rank.”
Dallas actor Cameron Cobb (above) delivers his most magnetic performance as Jackson. Jackson is a huge, sweaty, non-stop role, and Cobb brings all the spotlight-loving swagger you could want in any Southern-politician-preacher-turned-rockabilly-rebel. In fact, Cobb bears more than a passing resemblance to Nathan Fillion, the star of TV’s Castle. He’s got the same good looks and swashbuckling charm (see especially Fillion’s turn as Capt. Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog).
Which becomes a problem.
Bloody Bloody is hip and happily trashy, but it also wants us to feel some sympathy for Jackson and some, as well, for the casualties of his political ambitions. Those would be his wife (the disappointingly inert Arrianna Movassagh) and the Indian nations Jackson defeated. Jackson’s military career, his administration’s policies and his defiance of Supreme Court decisions all led to the deaths and forced removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans, culminating in the infamous ‘Trail of Tears.’ For all this, the musical is unafraid to use the term ‘genocide.’
But once this ramshackle comic juggernaut of a show gets rolling, it’s hard to re-target it emotionally or tonally. Cobb’s wink-wink narcissism and the other actors’ failures to create fleshed-out characters keep Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson more or less aimed at lively-lively sketch-comedy. It’s a missed opportunity: Both Jackson’s successes and failures came out of his angry nature, his fervently held beliefs in what American democracy meant. Many of our icons — from Teddy Roosevelt to Kurt Cobain — have had large doses of painful irony and tragedy mixed in with their success. That certainly applies here, but we don’t feel it.
Directed by Bruce Coleman, the Theatre Three preview performance I saw was rag-tag although, again, that seems part of the approach — even in its set design. Designer David Walsh hasn’t followed the Wild West Buffalo Bill trappings of the New York original; instead, he’s made American history into a dusty back room at the Smithsonian or somebody’s neglected ballroom, littered with funky, creaky, 19th-century antiques — with Christmas lights and a modern phone thrown in.
But the feel of sloppiness affects the vocals and miking, which makes the already complex, quick-shift, revue-like show and its sometimes same-same songs all the harder to follow. Rock musicals in small theaters are always tricky: rock ‘n’ roll requires amplification but small theaters don’t. Working out the audio mix is key. One significant change in the show’s orchestration from New York to Dallas is the switch to more acoustic guitars here, which means the music loses some of the crisp, rock ‘n’ roll bite of electric guitars. The overall sound is more “strummy,” which adds to the muddiness of the vocals.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think sharpness and clarity are really big priorities with this show and its jokey-punk aesthetic. Once upon a long time ago, Theatre Three established itself as this city’s ‘alternative’ company, its downtown-Deep-Ellum-off-Broadway theater. But over the years, it’s been superseded in that role by many others, and it’s settled for something cozier. Andrew Jackson is the boldest thing the theater’s done in a long while. All the profanity, the snark, the rock music: The show risks alienating the older audience members the theater has cultivated and grown old with. Yet Theatre Three is doubling-down on that affront later this month when it premieres the raunchy-puppet musical Avenue Q in its basement space.
So the question is: Will Andrew Jackson and Avenue Q eventually draw a younger crowd — to replace the eight or nine walkouts I saw at intermission? Put another way: Can a 50-year-old theater reinvent itself?
[music from ‘The Hunters of Kentucky’ returns under]
By the way, the previews for Andrew Jackson?
They were pretty much sold out.
Photos by Linda Harrison