Unicorn makes chaotic ‘Andrew Jackson’ entertaining

10/15/2012 12:24 PM

05/16/2014 7:59 PM

Give the creators of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” credit for coming up with the most audacious idea for a musical to come down the pike in years.

A rock musical? About Old Hickory? What were they thinking? What were they drinking?

The Unicorn Theater serves up a raucous and occasionally deafening production of this piece by composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and book-writer Alex Timbers. The music is sorta kinda punk-emo rock but never quite delivers the real thing. It is, for the most part, loud and aggressive, which presumably compensates for melodies with the staying power of a wisp of cigarette smoke through a car window.

Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s artistic director, teamed up with the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s theater department for this show, and she marshals her resources wisely. We haven’t seen such a physically imposing set in the Unicorn since the scaffolding of “Bat Boy: The Musical.” Matthew Mott’s scenic design obliterates the proscenium and stretches from wall to wall. The set is a visual mashup that includes a log cabin and the Oval Office, with an area thrusting forward from center stage where much of the action takes place.

The show presents Jackson’s biography more or less accurately in broad, vaudevillian strokes. He makes war on the British and Native Americans and doubles the size of the United States through conquest. He runs for president, wins the popular vote but is robbed of his victory through political machinations. He runs again, wins this time and begins exercising executive authority regardless of legal niceties or the fine print in the Constitution. He butts heads with the Supreme Court and does battle with the Central Bank.

The show as written — and as realized by Levin and her collaborators — is filled with intentional anachronisms and incongruities, which are expressed vividly in Aaron Chvatal’s wild costumes.

Shea Coffman, costumed in tight jeans and a bloody shirt with a six-gun on his hip, rips across the stage with unrelenting energy as Jackson. He has a great voice and fulfills his primary responsibility: carrying the show.

But Coffman is surrounded by formidable talent. The gifted Katie Karel makes an indelible impression as Rachel Jackson, while the veteran Matthew Rapport turns in a succession of small comic performances in multiple roles. So do Vi Tran and Sam Wright.

Chioma Anyanwu’s charismatic presence gets our attention as a member of the ensemble and Megan Herrera has some very funny bits throughout the performance. Jacob Aaron Cullum is hilarious as Monroe and other ensemble roles. Solid work is registered by Trista Smith as the Storyteller while Jeff Berger, who plays Van Buren and other roles, demonstrates innate comic skills. Rafi Cedeno delivers an impressive deadpan performance as Black Fox, Jackson’s sold-out “ally,” and other small ensemble roles.

A tight band led by guitarist Cody Wyoming supports the singers, although the Saturday night performance might have benefited if somebody had dialed back the volume on the voice mics. The Unicorn is an intimate theater, not an arena.

There is no way to fault the actors or musicians, or the ideas driving the execution. What is missing is a coherent relationship between the historical era being depicted and the glib, attitudinal, self-consciously ironic world of a rock musical. Some of the historical events do resonate. We all are familiar with disputed elections, the power of the banks and the influence of the monied aristocracy, but there’s no connective tissue between the show’s disparate elements.

The result is a wild, acerbically entertaining piece of theater that seems utterly arbitrary.

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