Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Also see Richard's review of A Midsummer Night's Dream
It's actually pretty darned funny and exuberant, even as it tells us there's also something in the American spirit, something just as awful as you'll ever find in any other country that ever existed, that goes hand in hand with everything we've gleefully been told is so uniquely and unquestionably right. It's also the apotheosis of dumb humor, shedding seemingly clumsy light on the darkest strains of the human spirit.
Probably, the whole show can trace its lineage back to "South Park," the very similarly irreverent TV show with a grotesque, exuberant style. (I would have also cited the much much more polite Vaughn Meader and Mark Russell as forefathers, but I'm desperately trying to sound young and hip.) In any case, with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson it's pretty much all true. Although, as far as I know, Martin Van Buren was not a swivel-hipped hair-burner with an Eve Arden-style crush on the nation's first populist president. (But I could be wrong about that.)
Anyway, the larger lesson here is that "populism" is a stirring, mesmerizing cause, whether in the late 18th century, or here the early 21st. And also that "populism" becomes pretty much really just an excuse for you to steal whatever you want for yourself. There are lots of rousing references to the modern Tea Party and how ridiculous and out-of-touch our national leaders seemed to be, even in early Washington D. C.and even including George Washington, himself.
But it turns out that populism (in this story) is just the tune we dance to, as we massacre the Creek Indians, or march the Cherokee off their land and on to the reservation. And, somewhere along the line, it becomes clear that the flip-side of "the majority is always right" is the subtly darker "the majority is never wrong."
And please don't get me wrong, because it's all handled in a very buoyant, funny, ironic, idiotic way, by the extremely knowledgeable producer/director, Scott Miller. And most of his genuinely unbeatable "all stars" are along for the ride: the singers and actors who delightfully recur from show to show. John Sparger, in the title role, has never looked or sounded better, or been funnier. And then there's just this Costco-sized bundle of talented people backing him up.
Amy Kelly pops in from time to time as a modern Jacksonian expert, thrilled to give some detail to the story of the boy who grows up to become the nation's seventh president, after his family dies of cholera or Indian attack (whichever sounds better); Brian Claussen is that Martin Van Buren fellow, though not exactly what you're expecting; and Zachary Allen Farmer is John Quincy Adams, a consummate Washington insider who riles Jackson, along with his cronies.
Everyone else on stage is deliciously weird and funnyand up in the band, too, where D. Mike Bauer pitches in with some solos and humor to add to the story: "It isn't blood/it's just a metaphor," he sings, in a folksy, reassuring way. Well, it kind of is blood, all over Jackson's chestit's just not the blood of covenant with his wife (the dippy Taylor Pietz), whose soft-focus dreams of kids and slaves are gradually slipping away.
Nicholas Kelly? Excellent as the seemingly "cardboard cutout" Indian friend who becomes more and more dimensional and embittered along the way. And then there's Mike Dowdyweirder than ever, but still just as funny, which is more than funny enough. There are even more fine performances, all the way down the line.
But the main point is that Mr. Sparger (as Jackson) gets around all the entrenched Washington bureaucrats with the same know-it-all swagger and over-simplified rhetoric we see and hear today from similar types who've somehow made it into Congress. And we see and hear (a musical-comedy version of) how Andrew Jackson pays his supporters back by expanding their property with stolen Indian land. Even so, I still can't get over how much I actually liked the guy.
Through October 20, 2012, at the old CBC prep school, across Clayton Road from the Esquire Theatre. It's called the Washington University South Campus Theatre now, as a lot of people know by now. For more information visit www.NewLineTheatre.com.