Review: San Jose Stage’s ‘Andrew Jackson’ a heaping pile of populism


San Jose Stage Company brings the wild frontier to downtown San Jose in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” through July 29th. Clockwise from far left, Will Springhorn, Jr., Halsey Varady, Martin Dietrich Rojas, David Colston Corris, Jef Valentine, Manuel Romero, Allison F. Rich, Clarissa Yoshiko Chun, Aaron Wilton and Courtney Hatcher. (Photo by Dave Lepori/SJ Stage)

When I think of Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of these United States (which is like, oh I don’t know, never), I most certainly don’t think of a guy who grabs a mic and says something  like, “Y’all ready to rock, bitches!” But San Jose Stage Company’s stellar production of the rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” does exactly that. A president from the Tennessee frontier who was such a renegade and did so much to obliterate Native Americans in battles such as Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans, the musical focuses on Jackson’s meteoric rise from a major general to the highest office in the land.

“Old Hickory” Jackson (David Colston Corriss) is an emo kinda guy, one who dives into love headfirst with his beloved Rachel (Halsey Varady). He wants to annihilate the enemy, he wants to create blood bonds with those closest to him, and he wants to rock hard.

Writer Alex Timbers and music and lyricist Michael Friedman hit all the highlights and lowlights of Jackson’s presidency – attacks from the Spanish, his organizing of militias to overtake the Indians, and his drive for the fleeting popularity he gained and lost. In a tribute to bad yet witty puns (aren’t they all?), Jackson did not reign over a democracy, he reigned as the king of “emocracy.”

What makes the show work so well is the remarkable realizations and parallels that exist in today’s political system. While George W. Bush was the president who might be great to share some suds with in 2000 and 2004, Obama’s cool dude, Harvard-educated swagger was appealing to the masses in 2008. But regardless of what gets a leader elected at any level, popularity wanes and governance takes over. Ultimately, this is where the legacy of a leader is created. And Jackson, who did not hesitate to consider himself the “People’s President,” is a reviled figure amongst American Indians, often known as the “American Hitler” for his role in slavery ownership and Indian removal.

Rick Singleton’s direction is sharp and flowing on Thierry Chantrel’s eye-candy set, and captures the essence of what a concert does at its finest. It really starts at the onset of entering the theatre. The opening of the show is enthralling, with a gathering of the cast in a simple shape downstage, firing on all cylinders in the number “Populism, Yea, Yea.”

While not every performance from the ensemble cast was terribly sharp, even a few moments landing on the wooden side of engagement, there were a lot of solid performers putting in exceptionally good work. Corris, who was last seen in the Stage’s production of “Avenue Q,” and has many puppetry credits to his name, seems to be in a very comfortable place here. Understudying the role for Jonathan Rhys Williams on this night, Corris is a handsome gent who prowls the stage like a hungry cat, and Singleton’s direction understands clearly that the success of the show rides on its principal’s square shoulders. It’s a great role too – this Jackson is extremely immature, wildly petulant and sublimely cutthroat. He kills masses of people, and figures that so much killing might warrant some fresh pizza. He has girls make out with each other on command because, well, because he can.

The production also features some popular San Jose Stage performers, while most of the cast played multiple roles. Martin Rojas Dietrich’s turn as four different characters was strongly committed. Will Springhorn, Jr. as Jackson’s veep John C. Calhoun, as well as a very funny Andrew Jackson Sr., created many of the show’s funniest moments. And a San Jose Stage debut performance from the engaging schoolteacher storyteller Mari Magaloni and her non-period wheelchair was a nice, Brechtian touch, with Magaloni’s comic timing at the forefront of her role.

Friedman’s lyrics are precisely pithy. Songs like “Rock Star” create a wonderful zeitgeist, with its understanding that every president from number one to 44 and especially seven, are here not just for a pragmatic approach to ruling. It’s all about popularity. The music was complemented nicely by choreographer and ensemble member Clarissa Yoshiko Chun.

Other hits were numbers such as “Illness as a Metaphor,” one of many touches that reminds the audience they are watching a play, and “Second Nature,” a view of Jackson’s legacy and how we all have a part in it. The schtick filled “Ten Little Indians” is a macabre view of Jackson’s devastation, using humor to make a strong point.

It is naïve to think that our entire focus on our leaders is because of their world views. Sarah Palin botched an interview horribly with Katie Couric, coined the term “Gotcha journalism,” and becomes the darling of the G.O.P. ticket in 2008. Bill Clinton had plenty of pre-Lewinsky scandals assigned to him, but locked up the highest office with a Southern charm and an unforgettable appearance on the Arsenio Hall show, showing off his considerable saxophone skills.

If anything, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” reminds us that, even though we know governance should be enough, it’s not. Strong leadership is important. And doing it while engaging in a mosh pit? Even better.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO GO

San Jose Stage Company presents the regional premiere of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”
Written by Alex Timbers
Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman
Directed by Rick Singleton
The Word: An engaging, stylistically savvy musical that sheds light on the highs and lows of an American renegade.
Stars: 4 out of 5
San Jose Stage Company
490 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
Through July 29th
Tickets range from $25 – $45
For tickets, call the box office at 408.283.7142 or visit the official website.

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