Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
If you like edgy productions, check out Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Unicorn's newest production, that mixes hard rock, strong modern language, American history, and all the social and cultural prejudices of the early American beliefs and you get a smattering of what to expect.
And, even then, the audience does not know what's coming next. The show's set functions very well as the audience travels from a log cabin in Tennessee to the White House to the swamps of Florida as the story of Andrew Jackson unfolds. Yes, imagination stretches as the audience views the events of Jackson's life and the shaping of his views as he rises from his early orphaned upbringing to the Presidency. Along the way, viewers see what shaped his life, his willful beliefs, and his mostly brutal acts against those whom he considered his enemies.
From the onset, Andrew Jackson, masterfully crafted and portrayed by Shea Coffman, commands the stage and within minutes distinguished himself as the lead character of an ensemble cast of about 20 who change from named, but mostly unnamed, characters numerous times throughout the 90-minute onslaught of Jackson's saga. The history lesson takes a harsh look at Jackson and his disdain for anything not of American blood–in this case Mexican and Indian heritages. His philosophy: Kill the bastards and cleanse the country of their scourge.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson shows the audience how Jackson's life changed as a result of his parents' massacre via Indian uprisings and arrows. He confirms his lifelong hatred of Indians with the slaughter of thousands as he rids the South of most tribes and forces them to flee, first to Florida. His story continues with the continued murder of Indians and his forced migration west of the Mississippi as the Trail of Tears decimates thousands more as Indians are forcibly moved out of the South.
The fate of Mexicans is equally sad, but not shown as vividly in this depiction of his life's work. History credits him with cleansing the South of the peoples that dwelt there before the Louisiana Purchase. His forceful measures suggest that he was a Hitler-style leader as he climbed in power to ascend to the Presidency. Yes, he was considered "The People's President." That being the case, he wanted to take power away from the rich and instill equality and hope in the common man. His populist agenda created the Democratic Party.
Hmmm...take from the rich and give to the poor. Sounds like redistribution, doesn't it? Perhaps shades of Robin Hood of English lore and also the current social buzz word in the clash of current Republican and Democratic platforms. Jackson fathered the Populist form of government. Along the way, audiences can see how history can and will repeat itself, in trends and applications.
In all Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offers a view of American history now always seen. The show does not sugar-coat his life, his victories, his defeats, or his shortcomings. The audience is left to decide if Jackson should be remembered as a hero or tyrannical ruler. It is no wonder why no current Presidential candidate or nominee mention or look to Jackson's leadership or legacy to further their political career. Technically, the set design, decoration, and functionality enhance the performance as characters move on, off, and around stage with ease. The sound crew used mics effectively so that all characters' lines are loud enough and clear enough for all to hear and understand. Kudos to the tech crews.
As for the show itself, the actors do not yet know where the laughs come and that will grow as the show builds. Preview audiences help the director and actors know where and when to build the laughs and dig for the drama. The show's language draws many giggles and nervous laughs, but those need to be developed and built upon. Audience members may feel uncomfortable laughing at social no-nos and past prejudices. Still, understand that was the past. That was the mind-set then. That was how people thought. Today, that's unacceptable, but then it was commonplace. That being said, the production needs to finesse the presentation so the audience feels more free to laugh at our past and see the folly of the Jacksonian times.
By all means setting the standard for his support cast, Shea Coffman commands the stage from his first song where he curses at the audience and announces he IS Andrew Jackson. His on stage presence dominates all actions and scenes. Because of his stature and performance the balance of the cast must never back off in their characterizations. Coffman does not steal the show, rather, he is the show. In the 90-minute show, he may leave the stage for all of 5 minutes. His vocals, strong and dominant, help characterize Jackson as an outspoken leader/tyrant. Coffman drives the show. Without him, the show would not entertain as it does.
Looking at the rest of the cast, several stand out in abbreviated characterizations. The show is about Andrew Jackson. Most of the ensemble serve as set decorations and bit players to move the show forward. As such, they are unnamed and their characters deliver minimal lines and their stage time as one character spans less than five minutes before they transform to another character. Still, the show depends on their performances to move the show along.
Noteworthy in the ensemble are the narrator, Trista Smith. Her delivery is rapid and fun as the story- teller and later as a White House guide. Rachel Jackson, Andrew's bigamist wife, probably gets second billing because she is the "romantic lead" for Andrew. Katie Karel delivers beautiful soprano notes in her duet with Coffman, and a blood bath between the two elicits laughter from the stunned audience. The named men of the show mostly undertake so many and varied rolls, identifying them remains difficult. (Thank goodness for the program so they can be recognized.) Washington insiders in Jackson's time come to life via the crafting of some really funny actors and their portrayals. Notably, Henry Calhoun, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and James Monroe garner laughs as gaily dressed, effeminate caricatures of American political heroes of the time. Credit Matthew Raport, Jeff Berger, Vi Tran, Sam Wright, and Jacob Aaron Cullen with their creation and the laughs they provide. Another performer who deserves recognition, Rafi Cedeno, stands out as Black Foot, Jackson's token Indian "friend" and the traitor of his people for selling them out to Jackson.
As with a new show, some characterizations need work to more fully develop, most notably Black Foot's character. Cadeno portrays a difficult character as the sometime friend, sometime foe of Jackson. He also serves as a "godfather" role to Jackson's son. His role is probably the most difficult of the show's supporting cast. His role is extremely complicated and changes as the show progresses. His performance will continue to grow as the show progresses and he delineates the character changes. The character of Rachel Jackson can develop more with a bit more stage presence for her comedic bloody bath with Andrew and her subtle death scene. Because her stage time is so limited, creating a strong stage presence alongside Coffman's Jackson is a monumental task. The actress' characterization will grow as the show progresses.
Along with the talented ensemble and tech staff, do not overlook the band that remains on stage the entirety of the show. They perform heavy metal songs that help define the show as different from anything even remotely similar. Their talents shine in the first two numbers and the audience knows their skills with be used throughout the performance.
The cast contained more performers, but their roles changed so much throughout the show that it is impossible to name or review their performances. Still, they all help create the show and their acting ability moved the show forward.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not a musical. The show presents American history in a contemporary style, and the script strips away any glorification of the title character and shows him as a man with courage, valor, menace, and bad decisions. The show is a history lesson with music. The show entertains, but is certainly not a traditional comedy, nor is it a drama. Prepare to be surprised no matter what others may say. Expect to come away with a new sense of American history and questions of how to think about Jackson and his influence on America, past and present.