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Theater Review: “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Studio Theatre

The seventh president gets an emo makeover in this flashy but chaotic production.

Heath Calvert as the title character in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photograph by Scotty Beland.

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
Kyle Jarrow) the 2003 musical
President Harding Is a Rock Star,
which, bizarrely
enough, is currently playing at the Capital Fringe

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

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.