Just days before Joe Biden called malarkey on Paul Ryan’s vagaries in their debate last week, Bailiwick Chicago opened the local premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s cheeky presidential pastiche. The wait seemed long—the mischievous musical opened on Broadway two years ago, following buzz-building runs Off Broadway and in California—but the timing couldn’t be better. Bowing in this contentious, fact-checked and fact-free election cycle, Scott Ferguson’s near-perfect production of this emo-rock take on our seventh president proves everything Old Hickory is new again.
Nick Sieben’s attractive shadow-box set is lined with Banksy-esque graffiti art and wheatpasted posters referencing the Occupy movement, John Quincy Adams’s campaign and the Indians (the Cleveland tribe, judging from the logo). That imagery and the eye-linered onstage band, all nestled into the appropriately shabby ballroom environs of the new National Pastime Theater space in Uptown, set the wickedly anachronistic tone before the show starts.
The opening line further establishes the piece’s mix of the visceral and the historical, as Matthew Holzfeind’s lanky, mop-topped Jackson lopes on in full smoky-eyed rock-star mode, steps up to a microphone and declares, “I’m wearing some tight, tight jeans, and tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit.”
Holzfeind is a reedy, unpretentious young actor I’ve long admired, but I’d wondered if he had the sneering charisma necessary to pull off this version of the Populist President. Any doubts are soon dispelled; Holzfeind ably carries a show that’s both wildly entertaining and winkingly educational.
Jackson’s political rise, on a populist wave of opposition to a perceived effete elite in Washington, is related in a gut-busting series of vaudeville-esque vignettes—including a hilariously over-the-top vision of early Washington “insiders” Adams, Martin Van Buren and others as voguers vamping to the Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki.”
The authors’ work is moderately spiced with modern-day political dog whistles like “renegade,” “maverick” and “taking this country back.” The pitch is somewhere between Family Guy and Schoolhouse Rock (appropriately, since Ferguson was the nostalgia-prescient creator in the ’90s of Schoolhouse Rock Live!). It’s not textbook stuff, either historically or theatrically, but it’s some damn fine malarkey.