In a winter musical season that’s heavy on family-friendly warhorses—White Christmas and Guys and Dolls, comin’ up!—it’s refreshing to see the Woodlawn take a chance on Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ anarchic romp through American history in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show couldn’t be more different than, say, A Christmas Story: BBAJ is part Saturday Night Live, part emo-rock fantasia, with a sensibility that swings (sometimes dramatically) between the sophomoric and the sophisticated. The musical premiered in 2009 at New York’s Public Theatre before moving uptown to Broadway; but even in the span of just a few years, it’s hard to escape the impression that the musical is not aging well. The original production, fresh on the heels of Bush’s second term, clearly reflected the trauma of that particular presidency; indeed, the character of Andrew Jackson, with his swagger, anti-intellectualism and overpowering sense of state pride, seemed a dead ringer for Texas’ own populist nightmare, W. While aspects of the musical still work—the Tea Party now seems an heir apparent to Jackson’s confused vision of America’s destiny—the show has lost a bit of its urgency, if not exactly its mojo. Bloody Bloody is bloody fun, but not, I think, a timeless disquisition on American social and foreign policy: it makes for a better diversion than dissertation.
The Woodlawn’s rockin’ production—which kicks off with the delightfully self-reflexive “Populism Yea Yea!”—is loud, brash and energetic, but hobbled by its technical aspects; on opening night, an inadequate sound design greatly favored the raucous three-piece band over the chorus, a decision that occasionally proved challenging in the larger ensemble numbers. (Individual performers usually won the battle with the band, but for the un-miked chorus, it was an uphill battle.) Benjamin Grabill’s simple set—with a painted American flag for a backdrop—transforms the Woodlawn’s Black Box into alternative nightclub, while Matt Smith’s lighting design too often leaves its actors literally in the dark, particularly on the sides of the stage. (In general, the lighting design could have been a bit more in the vein of a true rock concert; the playbill even has a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s buns on its cover.)
The ripped and scrappy postmodern costumes—by Greg Hinojosa and Rachel Danae De Vos—certainly put the goth in Southern Gothic: it’s Antebellum Tennessee as filtered through contemporary Portland. In general, however, the Woodlawn has nailed the vibe of a (musical) rebel yell.
The leads are strong. After an extended break from SA theater, Anthony Cortino returns in fine form, and pours himself into Jackson’s sexypants (yup, all one word): he captures the political leader’s bluster as well as increasing insecurity. Elise Eversole—in her San Antonio debut—is terrific as Jackson’s long-suffering (and allegedly bigamist) wife. A rotating trio of supporting actors—Robby Vance, Matthew Lieber and Travis Trevino—neatly double and triple as politicians, populists and even Indian chiefs. (It’s worth noting that the ensemble features many Woodlawners taking their first bow at the theater: It’s always cool to see fresh faces on SA’s stages.)
Working with a storyline that skips through time and space, director Matthew Byron Cassi clearly has his hands full. Some of the problems are insurmountable: a musical parody of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor is so arch that it seems transplanted from a different show entirely. (Plus, it’s theatricality that’s metaphor in this show, not illness: demagoguery as performance art.) An extended narrative arc involving Washington D.C.—here presented as an effete, Frenchified soirée—starts off haltingly, but eventually culminates in the evening’s strongest number: a zany romp through Beltway corruption with a sorely needed shout-out to Alexis de Tocqueville. (It occurs to me that an emo-rock version of Democracy in America could be the best musical ever. Or the worst.) “Ten Little Indians”—a charming children’s ditty about colonialism—distills the production’s structure and argument into one song: goofy in form, but deadly earnest in content. (Even in a show as wacky and profane as BBAJ, genocide is no laughing matter.)
Originally conceived and performed as a one-act musical, this production features an intermission for no apparent reason; the added length stretches the evening past the two-hour point, which its jokey plot can’t really sustain. (The Playhouse did the same thing to Xanadu a few years back: is there some sort of citywide ordinance against one-act musicals? I don’t get it.) But what the Woodlawn’s Bloody lacks in polish, it generally makes up for in sheer exuberance—or as the musical might term it: Exuberance, yea yea!
‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’
8pm Fri-Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Dec 1