When you see a show as utterly schizophrenic as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, currently playing at Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage, it’s hard not to come away from it wondering what the creators were smoking. It’s possible, of course, that genius struck one night while Alex Timbers (writer and original director) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) were flipping between the History Channel and VH1 right after having caught a production of American Idiot on Broadway. What else could compel them to craft a rock musical in which the seventh President of the United States is reimagined as a bloodthirsty emo music god, complete with fight scenes set to Michael Jackson, Martin Van Buren striking a pose to Madonna, and Susan Sontag references?
It actually isn’t even a particularly original idea for Timbers, who also crafted (with Kyle Jarrow) the 2003 musical President Harding Is a Rock Star, which, bizarrely enough, is currently playing at the Capital Fringe Festival. Andrew Jackson is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes tedious take on the same concept. Number Seven (the committed and fiercely charismatic Heath Calvert) is a complex hero for sure: Alternately charming and homicidal, he sweeps to power by massacring Native Americans, pillaging their lands, and swaying public opinion with a single gyration of his hips.
Is he a rock star? A presidential candidate? A sociopathic jerk with an affinity for tight jeans and self-harm? All of the above, and while the show isn’t exactly supposed to make sense, its structure is chaotic and its narrative inexplicable. Directed by Keith Alan Baker, Christopher Gallu, and Jennifer Harris, the production has a pace that falters so often, pauses aren’t so much pregnant as way past their due date. The cast includes talented performers (Felicia Curry as the narrator; Rachel Zampelli Jackson playing, yes, Rachel Jackson), but the chorus—attired in 2002 boho festival chic—is less solid, meaning some of the songs feel as tonally off as the plot does.
There are some elements that work, such as the incorporation of multimedia projections on two back walls (an animation depicting the execution of cartoon Indians one by one is particularly effective). But the tongue-in-cheek jokes—“Rachel, I love you, but I also have to kill the entire Indian population,” says Jackson at one point—feel repetitive and strained. And it’s a shame, because there are moments of breathtaking clarity when parallels are drawn between Jackson’s cult-like fan base and our own mindless obsession with charismatic leaders. “I’ve been to Washington, and I’ve seen them in their wigs, sipping tea,” says our hero, acknowledging that the spurious war on political elitism is as old as populism itself.
Still, the labyrinth of cultural cross-references (we see Jackson engaging in a cutting ritual with Rachel, Jackson in a blue-and-red campaign poster, Jackson grasping a Shake Weight) is too much, and the show’s heavy emphasis on style over substance makes it come across as immature, as does its need to explain everything (there’s even a song called, “It’s Not Blood, It’s a Metaphor”). This could be a fun, savvy take on politics and pop culture—if it could just stop tripping over its own overly calculated cleverness.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is at Studio Theatre through August 19. Running time is around 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 to $45) are available via Studio’s website.