Stage review: Pop culture has fun with history in 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson'


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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After experiencing "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" on Broadway and listening to the soundtrack endlessly, seeing it again became a priority, so I was delighted to find it relatively close to Pittsburgh and discover The Studio 2ndStage Theatre as well.

The production starring Heath Calvert, who understudied Benjamin Walker in New York, was extended two weeks to Aug. 19 even before it opened. The theater, on the busy intersection of 14th and P streets in D.C., feels like a modern version of the South Side's City Theatre, with steps to climb (or take the elevator) to the intimate, adaptable fourth-floor space. Seating for about 115 was on two sides of a slightly raised rectangle, with actors coming and going from four points and three platforms, one centrally located and jutting out like a diving board -- good for speechifying and death scenes. The lone nod to the ornate brothel-style Broadway set was a chandelier.

The incongruous pop culture references in this production are a kick-- a showdown with a Spaniard was set to "Beat It," for instance -- but all depends on the show's Jackson to own the part of a sexy rock star who can wear tight jeans well. Mr. Calvert can-do; he swaggers like Jagger, has fine comic timing and displays depth during Jackson's later-in-life descent into despair. There were a couple of times I wanted to hand him a throat lozenge, but mostly he and his co-stars kept pace with the rangy emo-folk-rock score by Michael Friedman.

Alex Timbers earned a Tony nomination for the play's book, which has a knack for situational absurdity as "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" pushes through the complex life and times of the seventh president, a frontiersman who rose to be "the people's president." Imagine a long Second City sketch that shows the path from orphan to war hero -- earned with defeats of the British and Spanish and the slaughter and displacement of American Indians -- and you get some of the sensibility here.

The presidency also brought unwanted scrutiny to Jackson's wife, Rachel (played with vulnerability by Rachel Zampelli Jackson), who committed bigamy to become the future president's wife. Their angst-filled relationship gets a heartfelt treatment in a trio of songs, including Rachel's desperate cry, "The Great Compromise."

Director Keith Alan Baker and the Studio 2nd Stage company deliver on the humor and the angst. The onstage band and ensemble, a crowd of 18 in all, slip in and out of roles and musical genres without a hitch. The storyteller, diminutive powerhouse Felicia Curry -- much more than a sight-gag beside the 6-4 Calvert -- gives historical updates aided by screen shots.

The show ends on a downer before it bursts into the folksy "Hunters of Kentucky," so audience members get to ponder what they've just seen with a bouncy tune in their heads. Historical accuracy should be debated elsewhere. As musical entertainment, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" takes us on an inventive and sometimes riveting ride.

The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20005; studiotheatre.org or 1-202-332-3300.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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