In a winter musical season that’s heavy on family-friendly warhorses—White Christmas and Guys and Dolls, comin’ up!—it’s refreshing to see the Woodlawn take a chance on Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ anarchic romp through American history in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show couldn’t be more different than, say, A Christmas Story: BBAJ is part Saturday Night Live, part emo-rock fantasia, with a sensibility that swings (sometimes dramatically) between the sophomoric and the sophisticated. The musical premiered in 2009 at New York’s Public Theatre before moving uptown to Broadway; but even in the span of just a few years, it’s hard to escape the impression that the musical is not aging well. The original production, fresh on the heels of Bush’s second term, clearly reflected the trauma of that particular presidency; indeed, the character of Andrew Jackson, with his swagger, anti-intellectualism and overpowering sense of state pride, seemed a dead ringer for Texas’ own populist nightmare, W. While aspects of the musical still work—the Tea Party now seems an heir apparent to Jackson’s confused vision of America’s destiny—the show has lost a bit of its urgency, if not exactly its mojo. Bloody Bloody is bloody fun, but not, I think, a timeless disquisition on American social and foreign policy: it makes for a better diversion than dissertation.
The Woodlawn’s rockin’ production—which kicks off with the delightfully self-reflexive “Populism Yea Yea!”—is loud, brash and energetic, but hobbled by its technical aspects; on opening night, an inadequate sound design greatly favored the raucous three-piece band over the chorus, a decision that occasionally proved challenging in the larger ensemble numbers. (Individual performers usually won the battle with the band, but for the un-miked chorus, it was an uphill battle.) Benjamin Grabill’s simple set—with a painted American flag for a backdrop—transforms the Woodlawn’s Black Box into alternative nightclub, while Matt Smith’s lighting design too often leaves its actors literally in the dark, particularly on the sides of the stage. (In general, the lighting design could have been a bit more in the vein of a true rock concert; the playbill even has a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s buns on its cover.)
The ripped and scrappy postmodern costumes—by Greg Hinojosa and Rachel Danae De Vos—certainly put the goth in Southern Gothic: it’s Antebellum Tennessee as filtered through contemporary Portland. In general, however, the Woodlawn has nailed the vibe of a (musical) rebel yell.