Monday, October 29, 2012

Though It Has Its Moments, 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson' Is Well Short of Historic -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Music & lyrics by Michael Friedman
Book by Alex Timbers
Directed by Scott Ferguson
Bailiwick Chicago Theater production
at the National Pastime Theater
Thru November 10

A hard-edged rock musical about the 7th U.S. President might not sound like the greatest idea for a Broadway show.

And in some ways, perhaps it wasn't, as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opened and closed on Broadway in 2010 after just 94 performances.

But BBAJ garnered generally favorable reviews in New York, and while other recent shows--Spring Awakening, In the Heights, American Idiot--had previously ventured beyond Broadway's comfort zone, especially in the soundscape of their scores, sometimes strange ideas can turn out to be among the very best ones.

But not in this case. At least per the Chicago premiere production by the Bailiwick Theater.

I don’t know if it was the fault of the source material—I generally liked the Original Cast Recording I listened to on Spotify—or this particular rendition—the Tribune’s Chris Jones didn’t care much for it, though the Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss and other critics did—but for me the one-act show wound up barely being worth its namesake-adorned $20 bill. (Through a $12.50 HotTix ticket and another 50% in fees, I paid 25 cents less than a Jackson.)

Photo Credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Despite its stylistic similarity to Spring Awakening, I give Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson points for originality. But while the 13 punchy tunes sound good compiled on an album, in performance—spread over 100 minutes—only a few of the 2-minute compositions really stood out and the combination of history and high camp came off more like a good college try rather than a truly first-rate Broadway musical.

Staged by Bailiwick at the National Pasttime Theatre, within an old Masonic Hall in Uptown, BBAJ provides a biographical sketch of "Old Hickory," from birth through death.

In a nutshell, it sums up Andrew Jackson as Tennessee-bred frontiersman turned successful general—primarily in the Battle of New Orleans—who leveraged man-of-the-people populism to become President, but whose legacy most prominently includes having largely decimated and/or displaced the American Indians. As such, he is referenced onstage as "the American Hitler."

I did not see this show during its abbreviated Broadway run, so I have no point of reference, but while Matt Holzfeind—who looks like Jim Carrey mixed with Perry Farrell—provided a solid focal point in his characterization of Jackson, he was a bit shy of completely compelling.

And while the rest of the young cast, as well as the on-stage band, was energetic, enjoyably campy and generally in tune, no one stood out as particularly fantastic.

There was some nice cheekiness in a few of the songs written by Michael Friedman—”Populism, Yea Yea!,” “The Corrupt Bargain,” “Rock Star”—and a solid History 101 overview of Jackson, including his interaction with ill-fated wife Rachel and Indian tribal chief Black Fox.

But whereas the first time I saw Spring Awakening—on Broadway, mind you—I was blown away by its originality, its score and its execution, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson felt like something a bit different in a similar vein, but wasn't nearly as revolutionary.

Though I'm nominally glad I elected to see it, I can't say it truly earned my vote.

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