BWW Review: BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON Rocks Mad Horse Theatre's Opening
Mad Horse Theatre in South Portland opened its 2017-2018 with another edgy, brilliant production that speaks to the company's reputation for crafting the unusual and provocative with consummate skill. That they had already programmed the 2009 Off-Broadway hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson before the tragic and untimely death on September 9th of its composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, only added impact to a production that is angry, powerful, funny, and hugely contemporaneous.
Friedman, who together with book writer Alex Timbers, had created this pulsating rock musical that chronicles the foundation of the Democratic Party and sheds new light on the seventh President of the United States, was the author of a quite a few memorable scores, among them Saved, The Fortress of Solitude, and the music for Mad Horse's season closer last year, Mr. Burns A Post Electric Play. His music is dynamic, mostly aggressive, pounding rock that also understands how to be tender, and his lyrics are mordantly funny, making the maximum use of the contradictions of character and situation to create true irony.
Written almost a decade before the current White House coterie took office, it shows a prescience and wisdom that reminds the viewer why history is so often a prelude to a future that repeats itself. While Friedman and Timbers' Andrew Jackson is a man and not a monster, he is also a demagogue whose populism reminds why such movements have so often led to horrors like the Terror in France or the Nazis in Germany or ...? Indeed, the "will of the people" in the hands of a man-child, egotistical, narcissistic figure like Andrew Jackson can become a dangerous impulse. Still Timbers and Friedman take care to humanize their subject - especially in regard to his beloved wife Rachel - and to attempt to understand the mind swings that create his perspective, while not sanitizing any of the maniacal policies he implemented. It is this balance that makes for such a beautifully written piece.
This is perhaps the most ambitious "musical" Mad Horse has presented in its small black box space, which they have reconfigured to place the outstanding three-person band onstage and stage the action in front. The musicians (Mike O'Neal, music director, guitar and vocals; Shannon Oliver, bassist; and Brendan Daly, (drums) are highly accomplished, and the sound they generate is so vibrant that they caution the audience to avail themselves of complimentary earplugs, though without (my preference) gives the full visceral thrill of the piece.
Stacey Koloski directs the relatively large ensemble with an urgency and intensity that is infectious. The cast fills the space, executing her vibrant musical staging and Benn May's choreography and fight sequences with intense energy. The simple set by Matthew Ferrel (Hollye Seddon, props) is enhanced by the punk-rock lighting (no small feat in this house with few instruments and limited technical capabilities, and Jake Cote makes the tiny house alive with sound. Grace Fosler supplies the minimalistic, often amusingly evocative costumes which tie present ot past.
Ryan Walker inhabits the title role with gusto, conveying all the mood swings of this crazed and charismatic man, and painting a portrait of an individual as ego-maniacal as he is secretly vulnerable. Vocally he shines and physically he creates a kinetic, hard-to-resist stage presence. The ensemble, who paly multiple roles, all bring equal commitment and energy. Christine Marshall is a wickedly witty Storyteller, whom she plays as a down-at-the-heels, disabled-on-a-scooter truth teller. Allison McCall is affecting as Jackson' wife Rachel, as is young Darby DeFilippis as their adoptive Native American son Lyncoya. Dominic Wolfgang Wallace brings dignity and inner conflict to Black Fox; Mark Rubin limns a trio fo different roles with consummate skill, while Michael Shawn Lynch is a sympathetic and urgent Martin Van Buren. While Adam Ferguson as John Calhoun and Meredythe Dehne Lindsey as Henry Clay give colorful and unorthodox portraits of these historical figures. The ensemble is rounde out with strong vocal and dramatic performances form Megan Tripaldi and Amanda Eaton.
Of course, in the theatre, timing is everything, and Mad Horse will surely benefit from the increased attention paid to Michael Friedman at this time, but even without the unhappy circumstance of Friedman's death, the company has been not only prescient, but uncannily brilliant in their choice of repertoire, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is one more illustration of this. The play is completely suited to an imaginative, intense, unnerving production in the intimate space yhat is Mad Horse, and it is sure to leave its audience troubled, moved, amused, and completely invested in the shared theatrical experience.
Photograph courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre
Bloody Bloody Amdrew Jackson runs September 21- October 15, 2017 at Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher St., South Portland, ME 207- 747-4148 www.madhorse.com