Spoleto 2013 » Opera & Musical Theater

Village Rep burns down the house with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Violent American history, set to emo rock and dressed in sexy pants

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If you go see the Village Repertory Company's production of the quasi-historical rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, take a look at your surroundings before the show starts. The former Meddin Bros. meat packing warehouse, now the Woolfe Street Playhouse, is in the midst of a $500,000 initial phase of renovation, and the results so far are stunning — from the exposed warehouse walls to the attractive bar to the luxe wallpaper near the restrooms.

As with the venue in general, the set was exquisitely appointed for the show's opening night. Producer and set designer Keely Enright, set builders Dave Reinwald and Heath Haden, and costumer Julie Ziff spared no effort in making the production feel equal parts Wild Wild West steampunk, Sweeney Todd macabre, and early American kitsch. It's the little details that count, and this show has them in spades, from clever propaganda posters ("Irony is Andrew Jackson on a Central Bank Note") to the hot-pink lining of Jackson's coat.

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In Director Josh Wilhoit's hands, the regional debut of the show is every bit as gleefully deranged as a musical about a bloodthirsty, emo-rocking, Spaniard-bashing seventh U.S. president ought to be. The book and music, by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, are the sort of thing a smart-aleck A.P. U.S. History student might write if given an assignment on Jackson's presidency and a lot of leeway for penis jokes. You can just imagine what they do with the nickname "Old Hickory."

In the role of Jackson, College of Charleston alumnus Will Haden appears to take as many cues from Ashton Kutcher's character on That '70s Show as he does from historical accounts of the president, and that seems right for the role. Jackson remains a controversial figure to historians, but in the playwrights' eyes, he was a petty narcissist in tight jeans who fancied himself the voice of the people. "Please tell Martha to keep the bed warm while you're out blowin' dudes," he taunts his old foe George Washington in an early scene. The oases of serious introspection are few and far between, but when they do come around, Haden shows surprising emotional range.

The four-piece rock band, led by guitarist and conductor Corey Webb, does the score justice, meshing with the onstage action and rarely missing a beat as they propel the cast through such fist-pumping numbers as "Populism Yeah Yeah" and "I'm So That Guy." The choreography is rarely flashy, but it does have a few standout moments, including a sultry dance introduction for Martin Van Buren, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay.

Haden aside, most of the actors fulfill both character and ensemble roles, changing in and out of a dizzying array of costumes as they go. Becca Anderson, primarily playing Jackson's heartbroken wife Rachel, delivers some of the strongest vocal performances of the show. Robbie Thomas takes the award for Most Endearing Character in his role as Van Buren, Jackson's giggly sycophant and only friend. And Noah Smith, playing the Cherokee chief Black Fox, anchors the serious moments with simmering rage and a sense of betrayal.

The only faults in the first show were a few missed notes and a couple of moments when the drums drowned out the vocals. Minor technical issues aside, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was everything it ought to have been: a scandalous romp, an irreverent satire, and a reminder that Andrew Jackson's story — gory, idealistic, and made possible by the sweat and tears of minority groups — is a reflection of our American story.

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