Review • Show offers history lesson and satire dressed in a high-octane musical.
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Remember "Springtime for Hitler," the classic musical number that made Mel Brooks' "The Producers" such wicked fun?
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which opened in Salt Lake Acting Company's regional premiere on Friday, Oct. 12, takes its cue from that same brand of dark humor, then makes an entire musical out of it.
With the history of early 19th-century United States in its rear-view mirror, and President Andrew Jackson gunning the engine, it dares you to laugh at the forced relocation of American Indians, brazen land grabs, and the pathetic machinations of our nation's political system. When this raucous rock musical is all said and done, you be the judge of whether our nation's political character has budged even one degree in difference.
"Bloody Bloody" comes complete with its own history lesson. The musical also has a sense of purpose and message that, when you look beyond its gaudy set and ween your ears from its catchy soundtrack, has razor-sharp bite. As politics grow nasty and consequences become real, it also tempers its zany nature with somber notes.
When "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," written by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, hit Broadway two years ago, critics alternately hailed it or deemed it too smart for its own good. A fame-fueled revamp of our nation's seventh president prone to grabbing a gun when he's not grabbing his crotch through tight black pants isn't to everyone's taste.
In 2010, during its Broadway run, I watched the show starring Benjamin Walker (with University of Utah graduate Marie Elena Ramirez as his sensuous yet religious wife, Rachel), and devoured every minute. But not everyone in the New York City audience seemed to revel in its ambiguities, emo-rock score and judicious f-bombs.
Salt Lake Acting Company's production, with J.C. Ernst as Jackson, understands that this musical works best when it's played as a straight-through story of our seventh president's life, from frontier childhood to White House glory and the ultimate question of a president's legacy. If everything falls into place as it should, its disturbing charm will surface almost effortlessly.
Ernst plays a fiery Jackson, but sometimes plays up the character's frontier Tennessee roots a little too. His Southern accent highlights the hick as opposed to the emerging political huckster. Still, when Ernst digs fully into his songs, Jackson comes to life with swagger that translates his populist appeal from past and fully into the present. That, plus stripping the veneer off history via songs, seems the musical's ultimate aim.
Working through the well-trod political cycles of hope, ambition, frustration and difficult questions, the show pauses long enough to let interpretive voices peak through. Jackson can't abide outside interpretations of his actions. He shoots the play's storyteller, played wonderfully by Annette Wright, early on. But he never escapes the voice of history, which speaks even when he opens his own mouth.
"Clearly, they're a savage and uncivilized race," he says, referring to American Indians. "But they talk just like us!"
Apart from Ernst and Jessica Kennedy, who plays his wife, Rachel, "Bloody Bloody" lives or dies by its ensemble cast. It's ably filled here, most notably in Jackson's political foils played by Patrick W. Kintz as John C. Calhoun, Aaron Ross as Martin Van Buren, Daniel Romero as Henry Clay, and SLAC regular Austin Archer as James Monroe.
American Indian chiefs, guileless frontier voters, and cabinet members and "groupies" fill out every scene, punctuated by the robust musical direction of band leader David Evanoff.
"Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" stands alone on its qualities as musical theater. It also deserves sizable bonus points for provoking unexpected laughs, making us unwilling accomplices to Jackson's dubious legacy by virtue of our citizenship, and letting us empathize with a man working his way through the maze of history and his own motivations.
Given its unabashed political and historical bent, and the fact that it plays through Nov. 4, the closer you see it to Election Day the better. At the very least, you'll never look at a $20 bill the same way again.
'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'
This politically incorrect rock musical veers between scabrous satire and all-purpose history lesson for a show that's way more fun, rockin' and relevant than it has any right to be.
When • Reviewed Friday, Oct. 12, plays through Nov. 4; Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company,168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Info • $23-$42. Call 801-363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.
Run time • One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.