SpeakEasy's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson": Hickory Hickory Rocks

In its previous off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was successful neither as a musical nor as a comedy, but as a rarer breed, a sort of theatrical hybrid. It was memorable more for its star-making titular performance by newcomer Benjamin Walker than for its political (and historical) incorrectness. Such is also the case with Speakeasy Stage Company’s local premiere of the work, thanks to Gus Curry (in his SpeakEasy debut) in a sexy, staggering, swaggering, no-holes-barred, take-no-prisoners, pull-all-the-stops-out performance. It’s a breathtaking turn, for audience and actor, as he dominates the stage for almost every one of its hundred minutes, not an easy task given its extraordinarily talented cast (most notably Mary Callanan as the Storyteller). If there is any justice in this world, this won’t be the last you will have heard of Mr. Curry. His trim and handsome version, or revision, of our seventh President, is more of a Young Hickory, and whether the concept works for you will probably depend less on his incredible charisma than on your tolerance for (intentionally) silly slapstick, emo-rock music (if you have to ask, you might want to pass on this one) with an occasional touch of country, and outrageously sophomoric humor (as when he asked an audience member if she wanted to see his stimulus package). It’s as though Hasting Pudding meets Saturday Night Live.

The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are often memorable, as in the plaintive “Second Nature” (effectively rendered by multi-talented Nicholas James Connell as the Bandleader, who also serves as the Music Director). The book, by Alex Timbers, is more problematic. Subtlety and sophistication suffer; nuance is in absentia. So, it must be said, is acceptable taste, at least occasionally, as in the following that must rank as the single most offensive and mean-spirited lines in recent or distant memory: “Susan Sontag’s dead/So I guess her cancer wasn’t metaphorical after all/Sorry”. Equally offensive in the Broadway version was its jaw-dropping depictions of gay stereotypes, from a group of “effete Spaniards” to the “foppish doily-wearing Washington elite” (as described in the liner notes to the original cast recording). Most (but, incredibly for this gay-friendly company, not all) of these caricatures are missing in this production. Also missing from this version is the overwhelmingly busy and distracting original set, here re-imagined in the very clever Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, along with very effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Sound Design by Eric Norris, and Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito. Add to this mix the inventive Choreography by Larry Sousa and Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson and you have less of a concert-like experience than its New York forbears and more of a truly theatrical one. Last but assuredly not least, the work of Director Paul Melone is outstanding, worthy of the typical efforts of the company’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, and that’s saying a good deal.

Meanwhile, about that great supporting cast, there is strong evidence that local schools have a huge talent pool: from Boston Conservatory, Tom Hamlett, Diego Klock-Perez, Joshua Pemberton, Alessandra Vaganek, and Brittany Walters (at the same time as the Boston Conservatory production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, with another outstanding title performance by handsome and hunky Marc Koeck with an astonishing vocal range, and a uniformly superb cast); add to this the talent from Boston College (Evan Murphy), Berklee College of Music (Mssrs. Curry and Connell), Northeastern (Michael Levesque) and Brandeis (Ben Rosenblatt) and you’ll have an idea of how impressive our “locavore” resources are.

“Bloody Bloody” was a certifiable hit Off-Broadway, but when it moved to Broadway, it lasted fewer than 100 performances. It may be that it misjudged its target demographic. It might be that many potential theatergoers of a certain age see this controversial President in a less humorous vein. (Certainly Native Americans do). Perhaps they missed the point entirely, as in the lament of two newly relocated Floridians who decried the forced relocation of “the Indians from here in Florida…a real tragedy…but then, we were, like…it is nice that it doesn’t snow”. Truth be told, that serious lament comes rather belatedly. In the final number, the Bandleader sings: “The motels on the canyon/They make a second nature….The grass grows/We take it/We want it/It’s second nature to us”. If a wonderfully performed political cartoon in the midst of the current political circus is the antidote you need, then by all means vote for “Andrew Jackson” with your derrieres (in the seats, that is). And vote often.

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