A rock musical American history lesson that commences with the line "Here's the thing about the Indians!" then segues into a song whose refrain is "Populism, yeah, yeah!" can't be all bad. And in its brand-new, Ron May-directed Phoenix Theatre production, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is sublime.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is another of those uber-hip retoolings of once-stuffy classroom oratory. In Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman's book musical, the conceit is pure rock-n-roll, and the life and times of the seventh president of the United States is told in grungy asides and grungier rock tunes that re-imagine Jackson, a frontiersman who chased the Spanish and the Indians out of the Western U.S., as a sexy rock star who loves profanity and hates Injuns (and who, in this incarnation, is played and sung to scruffy perfection by Caleb Reese).
Timbers has written some solid first-act material, and May smartly exploits it by treating each sequence like a mini rock opera. The resulting production resembles a jazzed-up Ken Burns film draped in Las Vegas glitter. Neither Timbers nor May attempt to illuminate why Jackson was such a prick--another bit of wisdom that elevates this umpteenth entry in an otherwise tired genre. And while there's next to no real history lesson here, there's a whole lot of fine singing and playing and several solid acting performances, besides.
As usual, comic actress Katie McFadzen is glorious to behold. Her quirky, hilarious turn as a besotted Jackson historian with a fried perm is so perfect, it's hard to imagine that Timbers didn't write it with McFadzen in mind. She's part of a talented and versatile ensemble led by Joseph Kremer, who plays, among others, Henry Clay and a turncoat Indian chief, and Tim Shawver and Adam Vargas, who provide scene-stealing comic bits. And bandleader Kyle Sorrell's folk ballad in Act Two provides a stunning calm in the eye of an otherwise rocky storm.
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Aaron Jackson has created an elaborate but not overly glitzy bi-level set that serves both the story and its large cast; its tattered opulence suggests both rock star scruff and the mysteries of not-so-recent American history. Adriana Diaz's costumes offer similarly clever double duty with the greasy unkemptness of torn jeans and motorcycle leathers trimmed in fringed epaulets and lacy collars.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's downfall is its much-less-engaging second act, which is mercifully short. The fact that it's preceded by that rarest of things--the first act of a really solid rock musical--and is brought to life by a smart director and a fine cast make this a must-see summer spectacle.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through June 23 at 100 East McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.org.