Sunday, June 9, 2013

Andrew Jackson, the Rock Opera

by Pa Rock
Theatre Fan

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical currently playing at the Phoenix Theatre, certainly wasn't what I expected, primarily because I went into the performance last night with absolutely no expectations at all. How, after all, could the life of our seventh President be turned into a musical, and a rock opera no less?  But somehow it all comes together so seamlessly and in such a logical manner that one is left to wonder why it took nearly two hundred years to develop this musical tribute to Old Hickory.

"Tribute" in this case applies to Jackson's many character strengths as well as his even more numerous flaws. This musical shows young Andy growing up in the wilds of the frontier, the loss of his parents at an early age, his disgust with the intellectual snobs who were back East running the country - people who had no idea what life on the frontier entailed, and his developing and continuing personal war with the native American Indians.

As Andrew Jackson ages, his notable accomplishments, moral shortcomings, and significant losses are also presented.  The musical references the Battle of New Orleans, moving the Seminole Indians to the Everglades, Jackson's marrying a woman who was already married, the loss of the presidential election of 1824 through the "Corrupt Bargain," the death of his wife, his presidential victory of 1828, the political struggles over the National Bank, and the moving of the Cherokee to lands west of the Mississippi - a forced migration that eventually became known at "The Trail of Tears."

To describe Andrew Jackson as complicated is bald understatement.  He has matured through the pages of history as one of the most revered and most vilified individuals to ever occupy the White House.  He went to Washington as the first true "democrat," or man of the people, elected to the presidency.  He ruled as an outsider, challenging the way things were done and imposing his will on the other two branches of government.  He was a political force of nature, and resistance was futile.

The casting of this production was exceptional, but there were three standouts.  Kyle Sorrell, the bandleader who strolled the stage with alternating acoustic and electric guitars while singing and stringing together plot points, kept the play's flow going forward.  Katie McFadzen, the narrator who roamed the stage in an electric wheel chair, a concept uncomfortably reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, displayed wonderful comedic timing and superb physicality.  She was a show-stopper.  And finally, the dynamic Caleb Reese as Andrew Jackson was completely amazing.  His energy and physicality were so intense that toward the end of the play he was slinging sweat with every jerk of his head.  The show was his in every sense.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson takes a fair amount of liberty with American history, from a rock soundtrack to the red telephone on the President's desk, but it was, in all honesty, a fair look at the life of a very complex individual.  History did not suffer through this loud and ribald retelling.

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