Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - WAAPA (16 October 2017)

Ah, musical theatre, what a great educational resource you are! My knowledge of American presidents has grown exponentially over the past few years due to Assassins (Midnite Youth Theatre Company, 2015) with its clutch of dead and almost dead presidents (as English Bob says mockingly in the movie Unforgiven, "Now, a president... well I mean... why not shoot a president?"), Clinton: The Musical (Black Swan State Theatre Company, 2016), the ubiquitous Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton: An American Musical, and now, the second year's first standalone musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The American obsession with the office of the presidency, its inhabitants, and their legacies is perhaps an odd cultural phenomenon as seen through Australian eyes but one ripe for creative interpretation and reimagining. The four shows above use, respectively, a carnival sideshow setting; an actual split personality; the language of rap; and here, the world of a self-absorbed emo rockstar.

I admit, it took me a while to zero in on the tone of this production. In its opening salvoes it is spectacularly politically incorrect particularly towards the Native American Indians. This had me squirming more than a little. Jackson, a former general, founder of the Democratic Party, and a populist president (1829-37) is a polarising figure in presidential debate mainly due to his treatment of the native tribes and his support of slavery. The 'bloody' moniker is not unearned.

The comparisons to the current incumbent are, to be frank, scarily prescient. Especially when you consider this was written a decade before Donald Trump's ascendancy. Jackson, the 7th president, wanted to overthrow the system run by 'corrupt aristocrats' and, as was shown here, fiercely for American nationalism and bitterly opposed to the English, Spanish, and Native American Indians, forcibly resettling the latter westwards. He was the Trump of his day... with much better dialogue.

The show started to click for me during the number Illness As Metaphor where Jackson (Jarrod Griffiths) and his soon to be wife Rachel (Stacey Thomsett) cut and bleed each other as a demonstration of their love. It's a metaphor, get it? From then on I settled into the, more often than not, outrageous retelling of Jackson's life and political career.

Not only is this a pungent satire on the crass nature of political populism but a pointed commentary on musical theatre tropes as well. In an inspired moment Jackson starts to sing about his feelings on losing his first bid for president - a classic musical theatre technique to allow us insight into a character's emotional state - only to be interrupted by several of his political rivals vocalising their own feelings over the top of him. This is followed by a 'montage' like sequence to show the passage of time, again skewering more conventional narrative devices.

Indeed, all sorts of devices are thrown at the wall to see what sticks starting with the rear wall of The Roundhouse Theatre itself. This was plastered with posters and photos of many former presidents including Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, JFK. The path to the highest office in the land isn't perhaps so different for any president after all. There's even a weirdly complementary song to Hamilton's The Room Where It Happens with The Corrupt Bargain as behind closed doors shenanigans lead to Jackson being bilked of the presidency at his first attempt.

Other deliberately off-kilter choices for the period included the crippled Storyteller (Amy Fortnum) riding around on a motorised scooter; the Bandleader (Josh Reckless) wearing a Ramones t-shirt; the use of a modern day phone/intercom on the presidential desk, and even a disco ball makes an appearance. Once I latched onto the "all bets are off" nature of the production these elements, while raising an eyebrow, actually worked reasonably well.

The four piece band (Craig Dalton on Keyboard, Tom Purdy - Guitar, Ty Barwick - Bass, and Liam Hickey on Drums) is at the back of the stage with a microphone set up to replicate, in several songs, a concert feel for featured singers. The band is, again improbably, part of the action as Jackson declares them to be his Cabinet. They played well, especially the more upbeat bass and guitar driven numbers.

The conceit of President as Rock-Star-In-Chief is given a wonderful workout by Griffiths who dominates proceedings. He is rarely off stage, is charismatic and belligerent in equal measure, and sings well with appropriate swagger. There was also a lot to like to about his acting, notably in the, admittedly rare, serious moments such as when he confronts the Native American Black Fox (Jarrod Draper) about further compromises and betrayals of his people.

Others to shine: Fortnum as the cheerful provider of historical facts even when deprived of her scooter and having to haul herself across the stage; Thomsett gives a lovely rendition of The Great Compromise as Rachel forces her husband to choose between politics and their marriage; Josh Reckless who comes to the fore in the last third as the Bandleader particularly with Second Nature and leading the finale; Jessica Clancy as the Announcer who is like the political pundit of the day (and interesting that there are no less than three characters who provide overt narration); Prudence Daniel who featured with the deceptively sweet sounding yet rancorous Ten Little Indians; and Todd Peydo (John Quincy Adams), Elise Muley early as Frederick, and Imogen Howe all caught the eye in lesser roles/the ensemble.

It's a wild kind of show that runs for 90 minutes with no interval. It lost some of its bite and energy during the second half as Jackson assumes the presidency. There are too many sequences with citizens asked for their opinion on issues of the day to demonstrate he is a man of the people. The point is well taken and didn't need repeating before they turn on him. I did like, however, the choreography that was, at times, reminiscent of the all out assault of 2015's Urinetown.

Finally, special mention to the young actress who played Lyncoya in a delightful portrayal that was an audience favourite.

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