What they say it is:
Andrew Jackson was a rock and roll GOD. He rode his outsider bad-boy image and his populist movement into office with promises of reform and represent the other America. What happened next was broken promises and a Trail of Tears. The multiple Tony nominee and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winning high-octane rock musical will explode on the Plays & Players stage with a truly American aplomb. A brazen political commentary that brings history bloodily to life, and leaves no contemporary political movement, from Obama’s “Yes We Can” to the Tea Party, unscathed.
Attending this one was a whim; we needed something fun to do at the ‘end’ of a busy week; Tara was a good sport (in spite of being only midway through an 8-day workweek) and voted YES on a dinner and play. Dinner was middling (Taco Riendo in NoLibs) and the play probably fits that description as well.
BBAJ is a big affair that achieves some of it’s lofty aspirations, but the show is regrettably marred by a disjointed, somewhat muddled composition. A forgiving audience (particularly one with a taste for ribald, shlocky humor) may find much to love in this mashup of history-rock-comedy-drama, but a more staid viewer might end up with a foul taste in their mouth. I liked it, but even as a hack reviewer, was all too aware of several theatrical shortcomings.
With 12 onstage players and an onstage musical rock trio, this was not an amateur, unplanned event. Unfortunately, the scale of the show isn’t necessarily matched by an equivalent sense of maturity; the show veers unpredictably between sketch comedy and serious political commentary. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this viewer was often confused as to the intentions of the show. Perhaps BBAJ would have been more digestible if the first scenes had given clearer attention to the audience’s needs; the bold opening number left me confused (singers refraining ‘populism!’) while I was still unclear as to the play’s context. Lacking explicit narrative guidance, I spent too much time wondering whether the onstage representations of AJ’s life were veritable history, or if I was watching a comic reinvention with little basis in history.
I eventually settled into the play’s rhythm and found myself enjoying much of it’s attitude and style. Many of the actors really have a decent amount of chops; the lead actor (Joe Sabatino) is a skilled performer who delivers a confident performance in every scene of the show, and many of his supporting cast are excellent as well. Allison Caw, one of the female leads, was a particularly strong performer (a veteran of Superheroes Who Kick A$$, another worthwhile Funsaver event) while Van Buren (Josh Totora) virtually stole the show with his Seth-Rogan-inspired, cookie-eating caricature. Nobody, however–including the onstage band–were particularly great singers . . . . and it should be acknowledged that some reviewers would have found this to be a fatal flaw in a self-professed musical.
The show’s strengths rather lay in comedic composition and absurdist delivery, and on the whole, the cast was able to deliver in this area. I also enjoyed the show’s blacker-than-black cynicism, including the unsubtle comparisons of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal proclivities and modern American administrations, the in-your-face message that WE (the people) elect politicians to do OUR dirty work FOR us (hypocritically pretending these officials aren’t acting on our behalf) and the predictable tendency of all politicians to completely forgo their reformist campaign banter, once installed in the place of power. These serious messages were nicely offset by the show’s (overall) lighthearted flavor, though their juxtaposition was a tough balancing act, given the vast contrast between the superficial laff-laff sentiment and the underlying substance.
My favorite scenes came relatively late in the show; I had particular fondness for the Batman-style-‘villains’ of Jackson’s government (Henry Clay as a hissing weasel-skin wearing freak; a black-caped, monocle-wearing James Monroe, a shrill and ridiculous JQ Adams) and the silly embellishment of photoshopped ‘historical’ images (the lead actor’s face superimposed on famous 19th century scenes), broadcast on the theater wall. Though the play never made me fully LOVE it, by the second act, these excellent comedic aspects led me to ‘like it’, in spite of other glaring flaws.
The whole thing could probably do with an editor chopping a couple sections; running around 2.5 hours, the ending sections of the play began to feel unwieldy and stretched. Perhaps the larger issue was the sense that although this show makes every attempt to be big, bold, and fully Broadway-ready, it fails in too many areas to be taken seriously. Better singers, a better (or bigger-sounding) band, and some orienting narrative introduction could have gone a long way (for this reviewer, anyway) toward solving the show’s greatest weaknesses. Instead, the show ends up feeling egotistically lengthy and unnecessarily overdone, though not without several moments of worthwhile entertainment.
I’ll start with The Good:
The most enjoyable moments of the show were the wonderful Josh Totora (as Van Buren) and the choreography. The group choreography was interesting and well-rehearsed. I thought the production was well staged and kept particularly interesting by the use of different risers to carry your eye up to the band and the projected photoshop images, or toward an intimate moment with the Jackson family in the “loft”.
I can easily agree with Clay that this show would benefit from some serious editing for more manageable length. This is not the cast’s fault, but I fell asleep during the second half of the show . . . this may have been partly due to my inability to determine if I was expected to appreciate this show along the lines of a south park episode. Was I intended to enjoy the gratuitous and crass language while simultaneously absorbing the (valid) satirical commentary on American culture?
It is obvious that the show’s writing was well researched– Jackson owned slaves, killed a man in a duel, was a bigamist and was responsible for what are now known as democrats. However, these historical facts are thoroughly sprinkled with fucks and shit (crass language–not actual feces). All characters- much as Clay has already explained- were presented in caricature format. I enjoyed the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ aspect to the writing of this play, but it was lacking that spark that makes something go beyond merely funny and irreverent and elevates it to truly ‘witty’.
Although I felt that the finale of the show didn’t fit well, I appreciated the show’s use of a legitimate Jackson campaign song for the final number. In terms of a show “wrap up” – I was confused that the ensemble were singing about Kentucky men with rifles . . . . hadn’t they told me that Jackson is from Tennessee?
All criticism aside, carry on Plays and Players, please keep hosting interesting theatre pieces for us to discuss on our little blog.