It took 850 pages for Daniel Walker Howe to cover an era of U.S. history dominated by the enormous presence of Andrew Jackson in his 2009 volume, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. It took 100 minutes for the creators of the 2008 musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to turn Jackson's life and legacy into a rock musical. And it's difficult to tell which one feels longer.
Although everything in this Chance Theater production is first-rate, from the performers and set design to the kick-ass four-piece band, no amount of unbridled energy and commitment can fix a show that reaches for so much, yet grabs hold of so little. This Andrew Jackson is the vicious, Injun-slaying, autocratic "man of the people" who spurns the Northeastern aristocracy at every turn, but he's also a whining, petulant, shoe-gazer who throws childish tantrums and peppers his speech with allusions to his massive 4-and-a-half-inch dick and homophobic rants. Although Alex Timbers' book and Michael Friedman's music and lyrics seem to want to seriously examine the contested legacy, as well as complicated psyche, of our seventh president, they are also suffused with garishly over-the-top scenes and characters, an ungainly balance that, while absolutely entertaining at times, never quite achieves synthesis. It's Family Guy meets The American Experience, with the strained emotion of Rent and the gleeful hyper-sexuality and swaggering rock feel of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's the kind of big, bold, flashy theatrical fare that takes the conventions of the musical-theater genre and chops them into shreds. But—mixed metaphor alert—so many horses are let loose from this burning barn that, ultimately, it's impossible to rein them all in.
Both a reflection—albeit a gleefully irreverent one—on the Age of Jackson and a commentary—albeit a quite forced one—on the state of the American body politic in the 21st Century, the play fails to deliver anything substantive on either front. It winds up as contradictory and frustrating as the legacy of a populist frontiersman viewed by some as one of the greatest of American presidents for refusing to bow to the establishment, by others as a genocidal, megalomaniacal terror, our American Hitler.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; www.chancetheater.com. Thurs., 7:45 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 Sun., 2 $20 for patrons younger than 30 and $10 high-school rush tickets, if available, 30 minutes before show.
But director Kari Hayter's production is still a raucous, free-wheeling, spare-no-prisoners ride, blessed with stellar performances, Kelly Todd's typically sinewy, explosively graceful choreography, and Robyn Wallace's skillful direction of a four-piece band (with special kudos to guitarist Gasper Gray). Keaton Williams, who has killed it in recent Chance musicals such as West Side Story and Triassic Park, shines once again as our British-Spanish-Indian-Northeast-Establishment-ass-kicking commander in chief. Part rock star, crybaby, man of conviction and Caligula, Williams hurls himself onto this sprawling canvas and somehow makes his character, who simultaneously orders the Supreme Court to suck his dick while also ordering two women in the White House to French kiss, somewhat likeable.
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Talent oozes from every corner of the stage. There is not a weak link in the 12-member cast, which is called upon to portray everything from prostitutes and overwrought Indian savages to Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and adoring Jacksonian frontier folk. To single anyone out would be unfair to the rest of the cast, but Alex Bueno, who has grown very adept at pulling off the narrator role in plays such as this, once again demonstrates her comedic, self-deprecating chops as the Storyteller.
But you just wish the creators could have curbed their everything-and-the-bloody-kitchen-sink appetites. Way too much time is spent on the freaky relationship between Jackson and his wife, Rachel (Ashley Arlene Nelson); a meandering subplot involving Black Fox (Robert Wallace), the Native American whom Jackson uses to swindle so many tribes out of their lands and lives; and his relationship with his Indian son (also played by Bueno).
If this were a straightforward play about the man named Andrew Jackson, those personalized aspects would be fine. But it's about much more. It's about the man who, as one character says, put the man in manifest destiny, and it's also about how the sins and successes of American history—even nearly 200 years later—reverberate daily. Jackson's expansion of the powers of the executive branch, such as fighting to kill the national bank and reining in Southern secessionists, are reminders of living in a time of presidential drone-strike kill lists and the NSA fustercluck. The fears of weak borders and domestic terror (Indian assaults on frontier settlements) are equally contemporary. And, perhaps most quixotic but also fascinating, the yearning among the people for a man to rise up from their ranks, tackle the establishment and restore the enlightening aura of genuine Democracy, remind one of the pipe dreams of Obama and (both) Paul adherents.
We live in a complicated crucible of experimentation in this country. It's a 237-year-old living experiment with a hypothesis containing words such as rights, liberty and "the people," but in implementation, it's all too often riddled with venality and hypocrisy. And maybe—and I'm just guessing here, based on the messiness of the play—that's what Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is truly about. That as we work and love and rant and rave and piss and moan, there occasionally arise people who embody both the most liberating and inspiring virtues of human endeavor and the soul-crushing realities of those ideals continually undermined by cruelty, hubris and delusional fantasies of exceptionalism. Andrew Jackson may or may not have been a great American president. But it's a safe bet he was the first modern one.