BWW Reviews: Ridgefield Theater Barn Spotlights the Twisted History of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON
I need to start this review by saying that I absolutely love this show! It is a youthful, refreshing, irreverent, funny, exciting, not-quite-politically-correct look at the twisted history of the United States as told through the strange saga of President Andrew Jackson, rock star. This cult rock musical made its way to Broadway in 2010 and despite favorable reviews, nominations, and awards, closed after only 120 performances. This was Broadway's loss. I am grateful that the Ridgefield Theater Barn took the risk of putting on such an innovative and entertaining show.
With an award-winning book by Alex Timbers, and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson uses the controversial story of our 7th President to explore political concepts such as American populism, the election process, political corruption, the laziness of the American electorate, and the fickle finger of fame. Its arrogant, in-your-face, emo score is instilled with intelligent and thought-provoking political commentary, never losing sight of the irony that our nation was formed on a foundation that includes the shameful practices of slavery and Native American genocide.
I love the fact that this political lesson is neither preachy or pedantic. In fact, the academic narrator is eliminated early in the show so that Jackson can tell his own story. Under the direction of Alicia Dempster and musical direction of Eli Zoller, actors and the uber-talented on-stage band drive us through songs including "Populism, Yea, Yea!," "I'm Not That Guy," "The Corrupt Bargain" and "Rock Star." The song "Ten Little Indians," where the ensemble women sing about the removal of Native Americans through force or unfair negotiation, is suitably uncomfortable. Another uncomfortable song in the show is "Illness as a Metaphor," which features cutting and blood as a metaphor for love.
The ensemble cast moves easily through the clever set designed by Alicia Dempster. Using a variety of antique and modern props, as well as period and updated costumes designed by Sara Beschle, the actors portray many character types who are easily recognizable and relevant to today's audiences. A high point in the show is the introduction of John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Martin Van Buren as models parading on a fashion show runway. Other character surprises include cheerleaders representing the American voting public, a modern couple whose relocation to sunny Florida does not endorse the means that Jackson used to make it possible, and the Jackson "groupies" who seem to fawn over his every move.
The ensemble cast includes Jasmine Love Barbosa, Rob Bassett, Beth Bonnabeau, Marcelo Calderon, Billy Dempster, Isabelle Dempster, Samantha Holomakoff, Susan Lang, Paulette Layton, Michael Shofi, and Alexis M. Vournazos. All of them help bring their varying characters to life and infuse the show with their infectious energy and some of its funniest elements.
Fred Rueck delivers an outstanding performance as Chief Black Fox. He personifies the duplicity and heartbreak of the Native American collaborator who helped broker some of Jackson's early deals to remove tribes from Georgia and Tennessee before witnessing the callous genocide that was later perpetrated on his own people. Carly Phypers is also outstanding as Jackson's wife, Rachel. Her rendition of the song, "The Great Compromise" is moving as she vents her sadness, frustration, and anger at giving up her private life while Jackson pursues his dreams.
The star of the show is Chris Cenatiempo, who is a true rock star in the role of Andrew Jackson. With powerful vocals, tight jeans, and black eyeliner, Mr. Cenatiempo oozes the natural narcissism, rebellious attitude, sex appeal, and charisma that helps propel the lonely frontiersman into a punk President. His stage presence and personal magnetism make him the focus of attention when he's onstage, making his a truly memorable performance.
At the end of the show, we are reminded that Andrew Jackson's legacy is still hotly disputed today. Where some see him as a great President, others see him as the "American Hitler." Lauded and idolized for wresting power from the elite and putting it back in the hands of the public on his way to the Presidency, this Andrew Jackson quickly learned that it's lonely at the top. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson neither vilifies or vindicates this controversial President. But as a history lesson, it shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through June 28th at The Ridgefield Theater Barn in Ridgefield, CT. All Mainstage shows are cabaret style. Call 203-431-9850 or visit The Ridgefield Theater Barn for more information.
Photo: Chris Cenatiempo as Andrew Jackson. Photo Credit: Alicia Dempster