Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's no "1776," I'll give you that

The cast of Bailiwick's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"
photo by Michael Brosilow
Much like the presidency that it depicts, Bailiwick’s Chicago premiere of the off-Broadway hit musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a mixed bag.  

For those who thought “Spring Awakening,” “Urinetown” and “American Idiot” played it too safe, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” may just fit the bill as truly the first punk rock musical. The 100-minute, intermission-less show is a hipster re-envisioning of history; our seventh president is painted with the largest of brushstrokes as a guyliner-wearing, hip-swaggering, Emo rock star in tight jeans.

Loosely sketched, the show is equal parts satire, cartoonish vaudeville act and critique of our political process and dark history. It plays fast and loose with actual history, though (you would no sooner be advised to treat this as a history lesson than you would a marathon of “Hogan’s Heroes” as a lecture on World War II prisoner of war camps).

Matt Holzfeind as the charismatic President/rockstar
photo by Michael Brosilow
As the man who literally had the presidency stolen out from under him by a Congress that feared the true will of the people, Matt Holzfeind is a charismatic force of nature; a noble feat considering he is on stage singing, dancing for the major for most of the show.

As Jackson’s long-suffering wife Rachel, Samantha Dubina brings heat and longing to the proceedings. There’s often a quiet nobility to her performance as we watch her cope with a husband struggling to strike a balance between his public and private life.  

Other shout outs in the cast: Judy Lea Steele brings the laughs as the motorized scooter-bound modern narrator, Jill Sesso’s performance of “Ten Little Indians” elevates things almost to the level of Laurie Anderson’s performance art, Patrick Rooney’s guitar virtuosity and rocking vocals on several male solos and the overall band (lead by the Jeff nominated music director James Morehead) who are as much a part of the action as the actors.

Nick Sieben’s scenic design draws the starkest analogy to our current political climate. Occupy Wall Street handbills share wall space with posters that urge you to “Vote Addams, Vote often” and others advertising tickets to Cleveland Indians baseball (the smiling face of the Cleveland Indians mascot is particularly jarring given the atrocities depicted in the play). Sieben also scores extra points for the 24 paper lanterns hung above the stage which represent the 24 states that made up the union when Jackson took office (Arkansas and Michigan would be added during his tenure, but that’s perhaps more factual history than you’ll gleam from the show).

For a company that has in part a history in presenting intelligent gay theater, crass stereotypes were the go-to for cheap laughs, particularly in “The Corrupt Bargain.” Whether this was a choice made by the individual male actors or director Scott Ferguson, it’s a bit of a head scratcher.  Just what do we think is witty, sardonic or “post-modern” about the embrace of gay stereotypes, gentlemen?

It’s also likely that the play’s unconventional format and 11th hour shift to a more serious tone will bewilder some theatergoers.

Bailiwick Chicago’s production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” runs through Nov. 11 at the National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence, 4th floor. Tickets, $25-$30. Free performance on election night (Nov. 6) with proof you voted. bailiwickchicago.com

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