The seventh president of the United States set some traps. That was certainly true if you were one of the members of the Cherokee or Chickasaw sent off down Andrew Jackson's signature Trail of Tears. And while the stakes cannot be compared, his slippery nature also applies to "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," the cheerfully anachronistic 2010 Broadway rock musical about this complex American figure, a show that sold its ducats on the back of the tres outre tag line, "History just got all Sexypants."
When I first saw "Bloody Bloody" on Broadway, it struck me as the ideal musical for the Wikipedia age. As historical research — of a certain basic level — has become as easy as a Google search, so opinion and attitude have gained in currency. The cleverness of this hipster musical, which was written by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, is that it understood that change in the pervasive discourse. It doesn't even try to tell us anything new about Jackson, it just tries to tell his story in the freshest and most opinionated possible way, mostly using wildly contemporary language and reimagining this 19th-century chief executive as a flawed, sexy rock star in eye shadow and tight jeans.
The self-consciousness of images such as cheerleaders making out in the White House notwithstanding, "Bloody Bloody" does try to explore an interesting central question, which is, in essence, whether Jackson was an aberrant, amoral, American anomaly or a savvy, self-aware guy who did what he had to do to move a young, precarious country forward — and thus was little more than an embodiment of America itself. That's what lies behind all the post-punk ballads, the groping scenes with wife Rachel Jackson, the trendy anachronisms, the songs with the self-aware titles like "Populism Yea Yea" and "Illness as Metaphor."
On Broadway, this show survived, for a while, by offering up sex, sardonic wit, a magnetic star, soaring vocals and the blackest humor on the Great White Way.
The big problem with director Scott Ferguson's admirably ambitious but mostly disappointing new Bailiwick Chicago production at the new National Pastime Theater (this is the show's first outing in Chicago) is that it misreads the tone of the piece, further camping up the material when this kind of snark requires a production that plays it absolutely straight.
To put this problem another way, it feels like the young Bailiwick cast knows they are in the baddest, wildest show in town and is determined to show us just how far they can go, when the material actually is going plenty far enough already. What "Bloody Bloody" needs is a production that goes in the opposite direction from intensifying the obvious, and actually roots this stuff in the kind of truth and dramatic tension that could give the show a real hook and some actual stakes.
The aptly sexy star of the night, Matthew Holzfeind, certainly has his moments in the title role, especially when what's generally a vocally uneven performance (among many vocally uneven performances) finally pays sufficient careful attention to the notes. But Holzfeind struggles nonetheless to take total charge of the show and pull us through the story, which should be Job One, and thus allow us to wallow a little in all of the disturbing aspects of his dude in the White House. As his wife Rachel, Samantha Dubina could dial it back about a dozen notches and still be plenty big enough for a first lady. Dubina and Holzfeind are both decent young talents; their chops are just not applied here with the right fundamentals. Time and again, the show stomps on the jokes. One of the gags here is the presence of a "Rocky Horror"-like storyteller (played here by Judy Lea Steele). It would be far funnier if Steele played against what we're all laughing at, instead of milking the character like it were a Tennessee cow.
When you first walk into the grungy, inherently deconstructive space — which looks, sounds and feels very exciting, thanks to the rockin' live band (one of the production's great strengths) and to Nick Sieben's deliciously toned design work — you think the Bailiwick is going to nail old Andrew to the floor, right where he belongs. There are moments of capture. But total bloody surrender would require a big change in attitude, from "look at us" to "look at him and thus see yourself."
When: Through Nov. 10
Where: National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at bailiwickchicago.com