Despite the buzz, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a letdown
Ben Dicke, a local actor and director, was inspired, astounded, knocked out, when he saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in New York last year, and he decided it was a show that Denver audiences had to experience. The musical tells the story of our seventh president, set to propulsive emo-rock. In style, it could be the bastard child of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Spring Awakening, complete with torn-from-the-gut songs, black humor and lots of violence, suffering and blood. Just as the nineteenth-century teenagers in Spring Awakening periodically whip out microphones and belt their yearning, angry, sexually charged songs like American Idol contestants, so Jackson is presented as a rock-star president — both a remorseless killer and a brave populist who despises East Coast elites (sound familiar?) and proposes to seize the country back for the real Americans (also familiar — and pretty ironic, since we've just seen him steal huge swaths of land from the original inhabitants). "We saw it. We wanted it. And frankly, it was easier to believe that it was ours," he says. Obviously, all this takes on particular relevance in an election year, given the angry nativism of one party and the broken populist promises of the other.
History is presented farcically, and with mingled accuracies and inaccuracies, but writer Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman also keep an unblinking focus on the real bloodshed that accompanied the founding of our country, the wars, the massacre and dislocation of Native Americans, the casual attitudes of our revered Founding Fathers — shown as self-servers, tittering imbeciles or both — toward slavery. Battles and historical events fly by, accompanied by many postmodern moments: a pizza box; a mention of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor; a comment, as Jackson's wife, Rachel, staggers and falls, that dying of grief was a common malady among the women of the time.
Once he'd picked this interesting piece, Dicke faced a long journey to production. He raised money through Kickstarter, realizing his goal of $10,000 in May. He spent 24 hours running on a treadmill on the 16th Street Mall to increase awareness of the show. He got Charlie Packard of the Aurora Fox interested. And there was lots of buzz about how Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson would introduce a new, raw, vibrant energy to the scene, that it would be a rock-you sock-you shock-you show that challenged cherished national myths and battered away at that already battered conventional fourth wall — beginning with the unusual instruction to the audience to turn on their cell phones.
But on opening day, in a grim reflection of the title, Dicke, who stars as Jackson as well as directs the production, fell through a trap door during rehearsal and sustained four broken ribs, a punctured lung and a large, ugly gash to the head. Refusing to let down his cast and crew, he struggled back and — astonishingly — was able to open the show and perform the role a scant three weeks later. Anyone who's seen one of those understudy-takes-over movies, or watched an episode of Glee, knows what ought to have happened next: a hopped-up cast giving a crazy, tight, pulsating performance, houses filled with yelling enthusiasts, and a roaring success.
So it gives me no pleasure to report that on the night I attended, the house was half full. And, more important, the production just wasn't very good.
As an actor, Dicke has a reasonable amount of presence and a pleasant singing voice, but he lacks the rock-star charisma needed for the role of Jackson. Most of the other performances are at the level of a better-than-average high-school production. The songs aren't memorable, and the script is no better. Throughout the ninety-minute performance, I strained to discern the wit and corrosive humor that the New York critics had found. But since I knew beforehand that the United States of America was a raucous brat of a nation in Jackson's time, that it was founded on blood and betrayal, that people tend to fall for populist rantings again and again, and that Jackson himself, like most leaders, possessed a checkered soul — it would have taken a far more surprising, electrifying performance to bring history thudding home
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.