The award-winning rock musical that was a New York downtown sensation but fared less well with B'way audiences is given its Houston premiere in a rousing take-no-prisoners production by Generations Theatre that captures the raw vitality of our seventh president.
Jackson is portrayed by Kregg Dailey in a performance so riveting it made me believe Elvis was in the building. He dominates the stage with sheer force of personality, creating a portrait of an ambitious, earthy populist, a superb salesman who deeply believes in his wares -- himself -- a tyrant who rides roughshod over opponents, and a human being capable of love and vulnerable to the core. Dailey is magnificent.
The rest of the cast more than holds their own, but this musical stands on three sturdy legs, and Dailey is just one. The second is the production team, which makes the excitement come alive with dramatic lighting; special sound effects; a warm, detailed set that serves as frontier cabin and oval office; costumes which are striking, appropriate and fun; and a band that's prominent onstage but totally unobtrusive. And, of course, a director, George Brock, who marshaled all this into a seamless, brilliant whole.
The third leg is the book, by Alex Timbers, which escapes the curse of musical comedy -- moments so fake we shrink with embarrassment. There is not a dishonest emotion in the 90 minutes, though there is plenty of dishonesty, as Jackson's electoral college lead in 1824 fails to win him the presidency. The script takes irreverence to a new level, reveling in truth-telling about just how avaricious, conniving and self-serving humankind is, but with enormous good humor. Despite its menacing title, this is most definitely a comedy, replete with unexpected moments, character revelations, bits of stagecraft that delight, and a writing hand so deft that even as the stage is strewn with dead bodies, their deaths have left us in stitches.
This is not to slight the compelling music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, which carry us through all the excitement, and are a match for Dailey's power. From the early "Populism, Yea, Yea!" to the incisive and poignant "Ten Little Indians" to the cynical "Crisis Averted," the music perfectly captures the spirit of this rollicking adventure. Never has a history lesson been more vivid, or taught us more. Critics call it emo-rock, but it strikes me as the opposite -- it is about being a total extrovert, not self-confessional.
Luis Quintero is excellent as Cherokee chief Black Fox and in other roles as well. Grant Brown plays a sexually ambiguous Martin Van Buren most amusingly; Tyce Green plays John C. Calhoun with elegant style; and both Billy Cohen and Graham Baker, playing James Monroe and Henry Clay, are excellent. These four comprise a quartet of aristocrats who provide many memorable moments. Stephanie Styles is beautiful and engaging as the love of Jackson's life, and Allison Sumrall brings verve and humor to the role of narrator, but these are minor roles -- politics in the early 19th century was a man's game. Dylan Hunt, only seven years of age, has exceptional poise and charm in cameo roles. Most of the talented cast play many roles, and somehow manage even quick costume changes without breaking stride.
The mystery is why B'way audiences failed to flock to this musical feast.
A combination of brilliance -- direction, stagecraft, production values and acting -- meshes together, led by a dynamic Kregg Dailey in the title role, to create a musical masterwork, refreshingly original and brimming with humor and truth.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through July 29, from Generations Theatre at Hamman Hall, Rice University, entrance 21 off Rice Blvd. For ticketing or information, call 832-326-1045 or contact the ticketing Web site.