This past Saturday I went up to Wilmington, NC to see a show again. This time it was the delightfully old fashioned City Stage instead of Thalian Hall. City Stage is also home to Level 5 @ City Stage, which is a bar/night club on the roof. This meant Vodka Cranberries DURING THE SHOW! YAY!
It seemed vastly appropriate to be drinking at this musical, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Not only was there a saloon on stage, but one of the questions asked by this amazing show is; is wanting to have a beer with someone enough of a reason to elect them? If you don’t already know the basic story of Andrew Jackson’s life, go to wikipedia, and then come back. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay great. So this musical basically spans his life, from his childhood where he was orphaned, up to his death and legacy. It’s facts are historically accurate, it’s staging is NOT. This show drags the early 19th century kicking and screaming into current pop culture with references abound! The cast is amazing and gels together really well. I’ve always held fast that the talent pool for community theater in Wilmington is significantly better than most other communities. These guys just go out there and prove it for me (so thanks guys!)
Jackson, the man, is an exercise in contradictions. He’s been called one of the greatest Presidents we’ve had, and he’s been called an American Hitler. Paul Teal portrays this walking, talking, eye-liner wearing, emo-rocking enigma in this particular production. I already knew he’d be good, because I’d seen Paul in Rocky (Check out that review here!) and of course on the CW show One Tree Hill. However he wasn’t just good, he was GREAT, amazing! He brought Jackson to life in a big way, strutting that line between good and “evil” all while educating and making us empathize with his character. It almost seemed this character was made for him, because I was far more appreciative of his chops in this show than in Rocky, and I gave him an amazing review there too! But he had me from, “I’m wearing some tight, tight pants and we’re going to delve into some serious, serious shit.”
Of course, behind every great man is a super woman, this time it’s Rachel Jackson, his wife. A daring woman she was the first woman in Tennessee to get a divorce, and follow her heart despite the stain of bigotry. Rachel is played by the fabulous Anna Gamel in this, looking like a punk rock pinup girl. And boy does she run the gamut of emotions, from falling in love with Jackson, to feeling angry and betrayed (Expressed in rock anthem “The Great Compromise”) One of my favorite lines? “I didn’t leave my other husband and risk people calling me a whore to have an even more fucked up marriage with you.” Rachel’s death actually hit me almost as hard as Jackson which is a tribute to Anna making us love her with absolution in such a short time.
The wonderful cast is rounded out by Alex Wharff (Henry Clay/Black Fox), George Domby (James Monroe), David Heck (John C. Calhoun), Patrick Basquill (John Quincy Adams), Erik Maasch (Martin Van Buren), Michelle Reiff (Storyteller), Beck Hanner (Lyncoya) and the ensemble: Caitlin Becka, LaRaisha Burnette, Chris Connor and Robin Heck. All of these cast members (except Beck Hanner) play multiple roles from Jackson groupies to Indians to tourists at the white house. Each and every one of them did amazing and had a chance to shine.
Enough about the cast though, lets talk about the music and the direction. For starters the music director was Chiaki Ito, a Wilmington legend in her own right. The band shared the stage with the cast all night, and even had a bit part as Jackson’s cabinet. Best of all they held down the amazing soundtrack. It is catchy as all heck and 3 days later I am still singing snippets of songs like “I’m Not That Guy,” “Rock Star,” and “The Corrupt Bargain.” I also must give a special shout out to the rock ballad “Second Nature.” Ms. Ito’s decision to change the arrangement and singer from a white man with a guitar to an Indian girl with a full band was a stroke of genius. The song oozes emotion and LaRaisha Burnette keeps that fury on a delicious simmer throughout.
The production is directed by Shane Fernando, and it is his directorial debut! A very strong opening sir and I hope to see more “Directed By” lines in front of your name! Mr. Fernando is also the director of the new Humanities and Fine Arts center at Cape Fear Community College. Which makes me a little… conflicted. I was going to attend that college with the goal of getting into film. But I wanted to wait until I qualified for in-state tuition. Then I did but I was working a good job. Now I’ve moved back out of state and I feel a tiny slice of regret. But I digress, because the direction on this was amazing. The choices to have the set integrated with the theater to make one large cohesive area was wise, as was the mix of modern and old fashioned elements in both props and dress. The only difference I would have made is with the Storyteller. In the original treatment she rides an electric wheelchair, which is what they have her doing in the show. But it seemed kind of clunky and dated, in a bad way. I actually would have swapped it out for a Segway, like those seen all over Downtown Wilmington.
Overall this production was an absolute smash and a joy to see and I’m actually trying to figure out if I can go again before it’s run is over.