If there is anyone who is curious why President Trump has a picture of Andrew Jackson watching over him in the Oval Office, that person need only sit through a production of Alex Timbers’ (book) and Michael Friedman’s (music and lyrics) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now playing at Custom Made Theatre Company. Lyrics like the following make that pretty clear, as Jackson at one point sings,
“So we’ll ruin the bank, and we’ll trample the courts,
And we’ll take on the world for America’s sake.
And we’ll take all the land, and we’ll take back the country,
And we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take, and we’ll take.”
Much like Trump’s ascension to the White House, Andrew Jackson became the seventh president despite virtually all of Washington past and present working against him, with our hearing several times from the likes of John C. Calhoun (Nick Mandracchia), John Quincy Adams (Gabriel J. Thomas), and Henry Clay (Rachel Richman) as they rail against him (including in a silly but telling ditty entitled “The Corrupt Bargain”). Trump’s idol won by taking his case to the common people whom Washington – both the first president himself and the politicos of the Capitol – had too long ignored those first few years of the new country, with the opening full ensemble singing in angry punk-style rock,
“Take a stand against the elite,
They don’t care for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust.”
Director Brian Katz emphasizes the populist revolt and deep-seeded anger/angst of those in the neglected frontiers of Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama (Sound familiar?) by producing this 2010, Broadway, rock musical in hard-stomp, harshly sung punk. These oft-tattooed politicians, soldiers, Native Americans, and citizenry are all bedecked in black from head to toe in their lipstick and eye make-up, hole-infested netting on legs and arms, and skin-tight leather (costume design by Rachael Helman). Punk King among them is a tattooed, black-nailed, blood-smattered Andrew himself whose first words to us are a defiant declaration of “I’m wearing some tighty-tight pants … I’m your president.”
While the choice of audaciously sung punk fits in so many ways the dark humor of a musical about a president nearly causing complete Native American genocide and that same president ignoring Supreme Court and Congress to rule autocratically, unfortunately too often this hard-working, rambunctious cast cannot deliver musically. Too many voices – including that of James Grady as Jackson – go flat as they increase in volume and scale. Harmonies of the ensemble are a mixed bag in terms of blend and effect; and songs are more often than not amplified through hand-held mikes to the point of distortion because voices often cannot match the demand of such miked power.
There are notable exceptions. As Jackson’s wife, Rachel, Maya Michal Sherer brings a clear, piercing voice that has the ability to both shock and soothe. When she meets Andrew, the two court each other during a love session of cutting and bleeding in order to heal the sickness of the love in their veins (the show’s punk motif fitting particularly well here), with Rachel singing in raw tones her attraction to Andrew with “Then why do I feel sick when I look at you?” Later as the ignored, disillusioned wife of a newly elected president, her Rachel sings a beautifully pining “The Great Compromise” in which she lists all the dreams she has given up so that her husband can follow his own.
In general, the women of the cast fare better than the men in terms of their vocals. Various ones of them enter to sing in solo and harmony the sadly truthful “Ten Little Indians” where a children’s song (“One little, two little …”) is turned upside down to count-down the nations of Native Americans being eliminated one-by-one through bullets, white man’s diseases, and forced relocations.
While sometimes lacking the vocal accuracy the part requires, James Grady does bring the haughty cockiness, the sheer-blooded and heartless meanness, and at times, the emotion-packed regret that make him a notable choice for this punk-rock version of Andrew Jackson. At times he is like a spoiled brat as he throws tantrums when he is not getting his way (Again, sound familiar?). At other times, he can make your blood curl as he laughs off or completely ignores the suffering he brings on the Native Americans, keeping one Creek leader as his bosom buddy to do all his dirty work with the other leaders of tribes and nations (Black Fox played with both heroic and betrayal-filled attributes by Salim Razawi).
The choice of a nerdy narrator whizzing around on a light-blinking scooter wearing a pink helmet (Teri Whipple) adds bizarre humor while also seeming a bit out of place and a distraction. A much more successful move by the director is to cast Martin Van Buren as an obsequious, adoring fan and yes-man of Jackson’s, with Chris Morell giving one of the evening’s best performances with just enough swish and eye-blink to make his character truly interesting.
Sarah Phykitt’s scenic design has the appropriately dark tones of an American flag backdrop with its black-and-red stripes and its splatters of dried mud and blood. Large black-and-silver boxes move and stack to become the bulk of the small, bare stage’s furnishings – all lit in oft-in-your-face spots and brightness by Aaron Curry. Leslie Waggoner’s choreography has moments of its own dark satire and punk-rock stomp while the music direction of Armando Fox has its most success as he conducts and serves as a member of the three-piece, on-stage band.
While musically not consistently a triumph, there is much both to learn and to enjoy about Custom Made’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show is a perfect bookend to Marin Theatre’s current Sovereignty in which another historical and current view of Jackson’s assault on Native Americans and specifically on the Cherokee Nation’s lands and rights are given theatrical treatment.
Rating: 3 E
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through October 27, 2019 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada