It's probably unethical to recommend that attendees to Outre Theatre Company's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson smoke a bowl before showing up. But perhaps, when under the influence of something, this scatterbrained anachronism of a rock musical might just cohere.
At least for the sober-minded, the show is something of a shambles — a precarious production that seemed perpetually on the brink of collapse, if we'd even be able to tell the difference. (Full disclosure: I attended the night before the official media opening, which was also the first time the show was being performed in front of an audience.)
Written by composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, Bloody Bloody posits the USA's divisive seventh president, Andrew Jackson (Robert Johnston), as a proto-rock star and sociopathic executive. He's an arrogant frontier populist who attracts groupies from the pulpit, keeps cheerleaders in the Oval Office, and wears his knife sheath over his genitals like a leather phallus. He creates the Democratic Party and rages against the moneyed elites while feeding his manifest-destiny bloodlust, slaughtering any Native Americans who don't acquiesce to his forced relocations. In Alex Timbers' scabrous book, Jackson has a tongue filthier than Nixon's — "Calhoun has been on my dick since day one" and so forth.
As it skips across the biographical touchstones of Jackson's life, the show makes valid comparisons to the political gridlock of today, calling for a return, to a point, to aggressive Jacksonian populism as an antidote to the modern era of lily-livered Democrats. But unlike the satires of, say, Trey Parker, there's no wit buried in this torrent of vulgarity, just emptily provocative references to the double-entendre of "teabag," the phrase "Democrats give better head" emblazoned on a character's cape, and so on. Even the Brechtian inside jokes are juvenile, and Timbers' self-indulgent book all but devours Friedman's clever songs, which become so intermittent and secondary that, at times, I forgot I was watching a musical.
Moreover, director Skye Whitcomb, who mounted a well-received concert production of Bloody Bloody for Outre in 2013, has not found a fluid rhythm this time. The sense of excitement that is so vital to lifting this material is missing from the get-go. Jackson's early life is presented as a sketchy experiment in deliberately bad acting that climaxes in the first of several missed sound cues — mistakes that may or may not be intentional. Some scenes feel rushed and unclear, while others — like the entire second act — drag on interminably, lingering on jokes that don't work or dramatic confrontations that don't resonate; some judicious trimming of the source material would go a long way. And for what it's worth, the show's original intent, as an ironic satire of emo culture, is noticeably jettisoned here.
A hardworking supporting cast of 11 cycles through multiple characters and costumes, with familiar faces like Rick Pena, Conor Walton, Christina Groom, and Noah Levine performing the duties of manic yeomen. The tuneful songs are performed by a solid four-piece rock band arranged on stage left, but they are too often hampered by a mediocre sound mix, rendering some of Friedman's clever lyrics incomprehensible.
On the positive side, Sabrina Lynn Gore's set design, while hardly as lavish as larger-scaled productions of Bloody Bloody, matches the material's insurrectionist revisionism: Portraits of early presidents are defaced with sly graffiti on the bordello-red White House walls while, for the first time in the Abdo New River Room, a catwalk extends from the stage and is smartly integrated into Whitcomb's direction.
Johnston's Jackson is the smug and charismatic linchpin of the show. The id-like energy source powering the dimness around him, he successfully conveys his character's magnetic-destructive duality. And Kaitlyn O'Neill is particularly exceptional as Jackson's wife, Rachel. Her deeply felt performance is warmly funny, and she exudes the only genuine pathos in a show that leaves in its wake a bloody, bloody mess.