Of all the questions raised by the opening of the Broadway rock musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, presented by Table 8 Productions and Off-Strip Productions, a couple pop immediately to mind: Will the reimagined tale of America’s seventh president, told as if the first Democratic Party president were a brash emo-rock star, capture the imagination of Vegas audiences with its sexed-up, amped-up, pseudo-history lesson? And second, will I be able to write my way through this preview without using the word ambitious in describing the production, celebrating its Vegas premier this weekend at the Onyx Theatre? [Spoiler alert: I only have an answer for one.]
Several things could work in director Troy Heard’s favor with this ambitious production (it’s a theater production of a history-based musical about a mostly obscure political figure, being produced in Vegas. During a non-election year. It’s the definition of ambitious!): First off, Heard is sandwiching this production between his spectacular, season-ending production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at Cockroach Theatre, and his intriguing next project, Blood Orgy of the Chainsaw Chorus Line, which should draw crowds based on title alone.
With Sandy Stein directing BBAJ’s music, Erik Ball in charge of production design and Sean Critchfield tasked with “general badassery,” the Table 8 crew is an able one, and, given last year’s surprising smash musical, Sweeney Todd (so popular it was reprised in 2013), the Onyx Theatre is clearly capable of showcasing small-scale-but-full-throttle-take-no-prisoner-bad-ass musical productions. Still … will Vegas audiences care enough about presidential politics to sit through a musical?
“Prior to [seeing the play], the only thing I knew about Andrew Jackson was there weren’t enough of his faces in my wallet,” says Heard, who first caught a spring 2007 production of BBAJ at the Public in New York. “After seeing it, I was conflicted. Here’s a guy who we elected to the highest office who alternately grew our nation, yet committed the worst atrocities on our soil. This is theater that hit me on multiple levels.”
In casting the production, Heard made it clear he wasn’t looking to play it safe, advising actors not to let things like age, looks or even gender specifications hold them back from auditioning for the play’s myriad singing roles. “There are 1,000 different ways this show can go,” Heard mentioned in the call. “I’m looking for a cast willing to rock out and bring their A-game.”
Music is paramount to this production, as the play traces the life story of its namesake character from childhood into the Oval Office, weaving its way through ass-kicking battles, momentous, clandestine meetings of dubious historical accuracy, and steamy romantic interludes with not-so-divorced divorcees, all of which are punctuated by power rock ballads and catchy emo refrains (the ensemble-sung “Populism, Yea, Yea!” and Andrew Jackson’s solos, “I’m Not That Guy,” and “I’m So That Guy,” to name a few).
Still not sure what to expect from the musical score? “Offhand, you’d think a musical set in the 1800’s would have a country twang,” says Heard. You’d be wrong. “It’s really hard-driving emo rock, with splashes of vaudeville and folk thrown in for good measure.”
Three guitars and a drum kit help rock the score, creating a percussive edge that choreographer Christian Escobar also incorporates into the staging. Arrive early, and you can take part in an audience sing-along, as the ensemble cast offers what Heard describes as an “old-school, front porch jamboree.”
The overall look of the production arrives as the result of many months of planning and an active social media crowd-sourcing campaign spearheaded by the director that helped fund the imaginative set costumes and design.
When fashioning the overall aesthetic, production designer Erik Ball took a cue from playwright Alex Timbers, who, Heard explains, cobbled together the imaginative narrative by pulling from both old and modern sources. Likewise, the look of the Vegas BBAJ production is derived from the repurposing of “old” materials, juxtaposed with modern elements. The result is what Heard describes as a “Frontierpunk” aesthetic: a colorful mash-up of ’70s era punk rock meets dusty Old West traditions — graffitied saloon walls, ornamental shoulder pieces paired with shredded Levis, fringed leather jackets. [Read: the kind of thing you might just as likely find on an East Fremont hipster on any given night.]
Initially inspired by its rock music score and politically driven subject matter, Heard stands by his claim that the play couldn’t be more relevant.
“This show has mirrored every current administration since it was conceived,” Heard says. “At first we were reeling from Bush’s unilateral ‘Mission Accomplished’ decisions, then it became the face of Obama’s ‘HOPE’ campaign, and now our current elected savior is far from succeeding in his promises. Wiretapping our communications? It’s ridiculously relevant.”
Whether it’s the job of theater to hold up a mirror to our fucked-up political climate or to simply entertain through power ballads and sexed-up scenes will, as always, be up to the audience to decide. Historically speaking, the play has garnered a rather dismal reputation of being not-so-great at filling seats on Broadway, due, ironically enough, to a politically induced dismal economy. But if Heard is right, and “sexypants” is indeed an adjective this play is worthy of being labeled with, it’s probably worth heading to the Onyx for what promises to be a righteously offbeat history lesson.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, Sept. 13-14, 19-21, 26-28 at 8 p.m., and Sept. 22 at 2 p.m.; Onyx Theatre, 953-16B E. Sahara Avenue (In Commercial Center), http://www.onyxtheatre.com, $15