Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical, with book by Alex Timbers and score by Michael Friedman, blends political incorrectness with fact and fiction to tell the complex and provocative story of Jackson. It uses a series of scenes and vignettes to chronologically follow the events in his life, from his humble beginnings and his controversial treatment of Native Americans to his presidency where he battled against the Washington establishment and continually defied the Supreme Court.
While the musical focuses on some very harsh and serious topics, it also includes a lot of humor. It also satirically presents Jackson as a rock star with a steady stream of fans, which ties perfectly into the fact that Jackson was the first populist United States president, dubbed "the people's president," whose ideas gained favor with the public who were turned off by the Washington elite. And even though it takes a couple of scenes for the musical to fully jell, it has some upbeat and inventive songs, a poignant ending, and creates a complex portrayal of Jackson's strengths and weaknesses. It also proves to be especially relevant to our current political climate.
Spotlight's production, under Kenny Grossman's spotless direction, hits all the right marks with the perfect blend of sarcastic humor and social significance. With an abundance of charism and the perfect swagger of an egotistical rocker, Brody Wurr is superb as Jackson. He excels in infusing the part with rich nuance and multiple emotional layers, which works well in portraying how Jackson was haunted by the demons of his past, which included seeing his parents killed. Wurr's singing voice is good and the sensitivity he brings to the part helps us connect with this famous man even though much of what we see he did wasn't very nice.
While every other cast member plays multiple parts in the show, and plays those parts very well, there are a few who also portray significant people in Jackson's life. Savoy Antoinette plays Jackson's wife Rachel and she brings passion to the part. Grossman has slightly changed which characters sing a few of the songs, including having Antoinette sing the majority of "Second Nature." This song is one of the best in the score and depicts how Jackson's actions were inherent and instinctive while also placing some of the blame on us, since we've all benefited from the outcome of his decisions. It also asks if it was all worth it. This change in having the character of Jackson's wife begin the song and include the entire ensemble adds an emotional connection and element that is much improved over having the bandleader (which is how it was on Broadway) sing the song. It also packs a wallop with the addition of Bobby Sample's moving media design on his rustic looking set.
With a campy and deadpan delivery that gets big laughs, Charlie Rabago is excellent as Martin Van Buren, and Christian Bader is quite moving as Black Fox, an Indian Chief that Jackson used to his advantage. Also, Jack Taylor and Noah Lanouette provide ample support as John Calhoun and James Monroe, and Alexis Harris is fun as a modern-day narrator, though that part is unfortunately small.
The exceptional hair and makeup designs by Angel DeMichael and the costumes from Samantha Utpadel include numerous tattoos, rocker makeup, and rock and gothic influenced clothing. Josh Hontz's sound and lighting create some moving images and ensure the cast and the band, under Tristan Peterson-Steinhart's music direction, are crisp and clear. While there are a few songs that are just average, the four-piece band is excellent.
As the musical asks, was Jackson an American hero or an American Hitler? On one hand he was the man who saw a need to go up against the Washington establishment and started the Democratic Party but he also forced the Native Americans off their lands in the Southeast. However, by moving them west, it practically doubled the size of the United States. The unconventional musical may not be exactly perfect, and it presents a lot of information and asks a lot of difficult questions. However, by doing so, it makes for a rich, rocking blend of history and humor.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, through January 27, 2019, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. Tickets and information can be found at www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or by calling 602-843-8318
Director: Kenny Grossman