Theater

Take a Stab at History

A new rock musical looks at Old Hickory

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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rock musical that rips the dead president off your $20 bill and thrusts him into the spotlight, in skinny jeans. What it lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in exuberance – especially in the Wilbury Group’s raw and raucous RI premiere.

The cast enters like a posse from the Wild West, in a formation similar to the gangs of West Side Story, and proceeds to rock out. Hard. They’re cheerfully campy, they swear like sailors, and they kick up their cowboy boots and cut a rug even as they cut each other. (The title is no joke. Expect to see blood). They maintain this high energy for the next 90 action-packed minutes, carrying the audience right along with them.

A sunny narrator (played humorously by Clare Blackmer) attempts to supply fun factoids about Jackson’s life – from his humble origins to his success on the battlefield and his road to the White House. In spite of her enthusiasm, Jackson wants none of it. He may not be able to control his legacy, but this character insists on telling his own story.

In the course of the play, Jackson explains what he has against the British, Spaniards, Washington aristocrats, and “Injuns.” He falls in love with a married woman – and marries her anyway. He struggles to serve as the voice of the people, even when the people don’t speak clearly. He adopts an orphan, but also nearly decimates an entire population. Look, he’s a complicated guy.

Joe Short plays the title role with a vengeance. His singing, stomping, charismatic Jackson commands the stage from start to finish. The lantern-jawed countenance from that $20 bears little resemblance to Short’s handsome mug, and he campaigns so convincingly that he really ought to run for office. Other standouts include Alyssa Gorgone as Jackson’s winsome wife and Kelly Seigh as his loveable vice president. But, under the direction of Josh Short and David Tessier, the whole ensemble is stellar.

Written by Alex Timbers, the play ranges tonally from sarcastic and slapstick to somewhat sobering – still in a style more akin to Funny or Die’s Drunk History than the History Channel. It’s anyone’s guess whether Old Hickory himself is rolling in his grave, wishing he could challenge Timbers to a duel, or if he is pining away to join the party. Composer Michael Friedman’s emo rock score is a driving force, with clever lyrics even when the melodies aren’t so memorable. In the Wilbury Group’s production, David Tessier nimbly doubles as bandleader and keeps the joint jumping regardless. Killer choreography, by Brien Lang for fight scenes and Kate Lester for dance, also speeds the pace.

You can draw plenty of parallels to contemporary politics in this play. Amidst all the laughs, it offers sharp criticism of the unrealistic expectations heaped on leaders and of the fickle, ever-changing tide of public opinion. Of course, if you wanted a more thorough examination of the life and times of Andrew Jackson, you could pick up a few 800-page biographies at the library. Here, forget the facts. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a loose interpretation, a riotous guitar riff on the subject. It’s about the spirit of the thing. And that spirit is infectious.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through July 28 at the Butcher Block Mill Building, 25 Eagle Street, Providence.