Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson : San Francisco Playhouse : A Capsule Review

San Francisco Playhouse opens its milestone tenth season with a bang, sporting a new, more spacious venue and a timely production that can only be described as a masterpiece in post-modern cynicism.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a darkly satiric shot between the eyes of our nation’s history and political system. And, for better or worse, it’s also an unmistakable exercise in American self-loathing.

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Librettist Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman’s musical is not only a merciless indictment of our political tradition and institutions, however. It’s also a slap in the face and antithesis of virtually every convention held dear during musical theatre's "golden age." In that sense it’s a sneering rejection of an important part of our culture, too.

It’s probably not a stretch that Rodgers and Hammerstein would turn over in their graves if they knew what had become of the genre they helped create. Pop sentimentality and memorable melodies have been supplanted with grunge angst and dissonant harmonics, featuring such ironic lyrics as:

         A wise woman once wrote that illness is not metaphor.
               So why do I feel sick when I look at you?
               There is this illness in me and I need to get it out, so when I bleed
               It's not blood, it's a metaphor for love.”

Michael Barrett Austin∗, El Beh, Ashkon Davaron, Angel Burgess, Lucas Hatton Celebrate Presidential Victory

Andrew Jackson is parodied as a president with a guitar wielding, tight-jeaned brand of celebrity populism that’s indistinguishable from a rock icon. The work suggests that his deluded sense of entitlement and genocidal tendencies are emblematic of the country’s character, and that the public adoration he garners is both hollow and fickle. It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless and depressing depiction of the American zeitgeist.

That being said, however, the high-energy cast is anything but enervating and does not succumb to the downbeat message. 

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Ashkon Davaran is mesmerizing as the charismatic Commander-in-Chief, adopting the narcissistic persona with a frenetic abandon. It’s a genuine star making turn, and his convincing vocalizations only serve to elevate his remarkable performance.

El Beh sings solo “10 Little Indians”
Each member of the remaining young cast embrace their multiple roles with equal vigor, with the impressive and versatile ensemblist and cello-player El Beh (“Ten Little Indians”) among the many standouts.

Except for some occasional sound issues, all elements of this otherwise fine-tuned show are first-rate. John Tracy’s direction is brisk and his staging is ingenious – complemented by the tight handiwork of musical director Jonathan Fadner and the lighting of Kurt Landisman. And the company has finally found a home at the Walter Kasper Teufel, Jr. Auditorium (in the Kensington Park Hotel) that will undoubtedly better suit its oeuvre.

One would be remiss, however, without acknowledging the magnificent contribution of maestro designer Nina Ball. As the play lays bare the American psyche, so does the symbolism of her (capitol) domed, girdered steel framework and oval-shaped, E pluribus unum sealed set. It is an outstanding example of inspired, thematic design. Brava!

Presidents Van Buren, Calhoun, Clay and Monroe conspire to keep Jackson out of Presidency (William Elsman, Michael Barrett Austin, Safiya Fredericks, Lucas Hatton

The show runs through November 24th. (90 minutes with no intermission.)

~Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Updated: 10/16/2012 08:20:00 AM PDT

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