Piper Theatre brings innovative, satirical Broadway musical to the free outdoor theater scene.
Photo courtesy of ChadwickTheaterBlog
In a time in which almost all free outdoor theater seems to be Shakespeare, it's been thrilling to see Piper Theatre Productions spicing things up. We already covered their production of the world premiere of Mr. Splitfoot, but last weekend we got to see their mainstage production, the delightfully not-family-friendly Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Breaking Down Boundaries in Musical Theater
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rock musical with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and book by Alex Timbers. It tells the story of the life of seventh American president Andrew Jackson, including his vicious wars in the Western frontier, founding of the populist Democratic Party and struggles as president with the event that would come to define his legacy, the Trail of Tears that forcibly relocated Native Americans from their homes in the southeastern United States and killed thousands in the process. Back in New York for the first time since its 2010 Broadway premiere, this outdoor performance of the musical directed by Nigel Williams excels in painting a humorous but complex portrait of a man who did so much to shape America's history.
This ensemble play revels in its lack of political correctness, with white actors simply slipping on a headband with a feather on it to become "Indians" or Monty Python-inspired accents to depict the Spaniards or its joyful energy toward the genocide of an entire people. It also revels in obscene language and even features a scene in which Jackson and his future wife Rachel cover each other in blood as a sign of their devotion to one another. The cross-dressing, perverted sexual jokes about George Washington and constant portrayals of violent death only add to the aesthetic of the delightfully brutal play.
The musical is narrated by the Storyteller, the nutty librarian who is absolutely thrilled with every element of Jackson's story, gore and racism included, and often jumps in to take over scenes from the rest of the company--at the risk of injury by Jackson. The interactions between Jackson and the historian are some of the most entertaining parts of the entire show.
A Complex Historical Tale
Yet, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not simply one big joke. It also tells the story of a crucial period of American history, the breakdown of elitism in Washington and the desire to represent all Americans in government, as catchy numbers such as "Populism Yea Yea" remind the audience. As the play goes on, moreover, moral quandaries begin to pop up little by little, as when Jackson saves an orphan Indian boy to raise as his own son and befriends his native ambassador, Black Fox. And of course, everything changes at the end of the first act when Jackson becomes president and everything becomes immensely more complicated.
Despite his populist aspirations, simply doing what the people want is so much more difficult than it first sounded. This section of the musical is particularly strong, for it resounds immensely with so many issues we still deal with in politics today. The line "The Supreme Court is full of Republicans and Congress won't pass a damn thing" feels particularly prescient, while one of the most telling moments in the whole performance is when Jackson asks a White House tour group what he should do about the Indians and no one is able to give him an answer. As much as he wants the people to be a part of the government, they are not well-informed enough or aren't willing to make the difficult decisions ("Crisis Averted").
A Professional Performance
Sean Coughlin gives a fantastically nuanced portrayal of Andrew Jackson, at times painfully immature and bloodthirsty and others immensely relatable. Making an audience want to root for a man who slaughtered dozens of Native American tribes is no small task. Su Hendrickson is a delight as the Storyteller, while Lynn Craig as Rachel Jackson does a great job grounding the play in interpersonal, family concerns as well as sweeping national ones. The crowd's favorite performer, meanwhile, was none other than Jay Paranada as Martin Van Buren, the "preternaturally obese Senator from New York" who goes on to become Jackson's Vice President and comedic sidekick, trying to keep the country in order despite the best efforts of his maverick president.
While microphone issues obscured some of the lyrics during the show and led to Coughlin needing to use a hand mic throughout, the actors were unfazed by the technical conundrum. Even without all the words, the physical humor and absurd costumes came though clearly, whether it was the fishnets and cut-off jeans of the female ensemble members or the matching, ratlike wigs of the Congressmen who thwart Jackson's first bid for presidency in "The Corrupt Bargain." The backdrop of the set, a picket fence painted with a battered American flag pattern, added to the visual appeal, recalling just how difficult the populist ideals of American governance really are.
The challenge of performing musicals outdoors is substantial, and the Piper Theatre crew should be commended for taking a risk on such a controversial production for their summer season. I hope to see many more shows like it from them. In the meantime, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays for one more weekend, July 17-19, at Washington Park in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.