Speakeasy Stage’s ‘Jackson’ is bloody good fun
BOSTON — He must have done something right to land on the $20 bill.Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, still resides on the double sawbuck after first being installed there in 1929. Yet, there are those who would like to remove his image from all U.S. currency.
Was he one of our greatest presidents or was he a genocidal killer who terrorized American Indians?If you’re looking for a linear, literal retelling of “Old Hickory’s” life and times, you’re in the wrong church and the wrong pew with the Speakeasy Stage Company’s production of the satirical musical “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.
If what you’re looking for is an entertaining, provocative, funny look at a historical figure, his feats and his foibles, told against the background of a tuneful emo-rock score, you have come to the right place.
There are all kinds of way to bring history to life, and the this type of “mash-up” — the mixing of pop culture and history — has been successful for author Alex Timbers, who has also penned other irreverent musicals, including sending up L. Ron Hubbard in “A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant.”
Timbers reinvents our seventh president as a populist rock star, and he and composer Matthew Friedman trace Jackson’s rise from his beginnings as the son of poor Irish immigrants in South Carolina — three members of the family were killed in a conflict with the British — to a wealthy lawyer and slaveowner and later a successful politician.
Jackson was a two-term president known as a valiant warrior who presided over the largest expansion of the country’s borders under any president in history.
As the War of 1812 ended in 1815, he attained war hero/rock star status when he took on the British in the Battle of New Orleans, later inspiring Jimmy Driftwood to write the song that Johnny Horton took to No. 1 in 1959, giving Jackson a few more years of good PR before his handling of “Indian Problem” continued to tarnish his legacy.
Gus Curry, who was excellent in last summer’s production of “Carnival” at Gloucester Stage Company, is a tough talkin’, hard fightin’ populist frontier politician as Jackson, taking on the political establishment in the Northeast and, from time to time, not only American Indians, but the English and Spaniards as well.
Timbers’ Jackson allows Curry as Jackson to show some warmth in his scenes with Allesandra Vaganek as wife Rachel, but their questionable marital status provides ammunition for their political enemies, and Jackson’s ambitions eventually take their toll on his wife.
Mary Callanan, returning to Boston stages after two years on the road with “Mamma Mia,” has some hilarious moments as The Storyteller, the wheelchair-bound, Crocs-wearing narrator who runs afoul of the violence-prone Jackson
Timbers portrays the other leading political figures of the day — John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Henry Clay and John Calhoun — as lightweights and mere fodder for Jackson’s political machinations.
Jackson’s close loss to John Quincy Adams in the 1824 presidential election — the result of what Jackson called a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay — fed his disdain for Washington bureaucrats.
He vowed to make “the people’s will” his calling card and his dealings with Spaniards, the English, Indians, and Washington bureaucrats, all played well with the American mindset of the time.
He also charted a path for many other politicians to follow. Think Reagan’s “Morning in America,” which Timbers references several times.
Eric Levenson’s eclectic set features a wire grid festooned with elements of the presidency– including presidential bunting and seal — along with the trappings of a frontiersman.
Director Paul Melone never allows the energy level to flag for the 105-minute show, performed without an intermission, and Nicholas James Connell, an up-and-coming musical director, shows off considerable his vocal and musical chops, allowing the performers to feed off the band’s energy.
So will Jackson’s eventual legacy be as a noble warrior who greatly expanded the country’s borders and its influence on world affairs, or the man who presided over the forced relocations of Indians — aka “The Trail of Tears” — that had some calling him an American Hitler and a genocidal murderer? Timbers leans towards the latter. Keep checking that $20 bill for the final score.
The Speakeasy Stage Company production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Book by Alex Timbers, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Paul Melone. At the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Nov. 17. Tix/Info: 617-933-8600 or SpeakEasyStage.com.