King Andrew the Second, David Kramer and King Andrew the First, Matthew Comb, in white backstage at SummerStage at the JCC [Photo: Ralph Meranto] 7/20/16
In art galleries and theater stages — the Conventions not yet even over — presidential politics are popping up all over town. First, Rochester saw the traveling art exhibit, Trumpmania, make a pit spot at the Rochester Museum of Art. Then, at the Visual Studies Workshop, Ray Ray Miltrano funneled unsuspecting voters through Primary Caucus.
A presidential candidate who bucks the traditional political system with a populist, celebrity-like appeal who gets elected in spite of a checkered past, history of insulting other candidates, making racist remarks and showing a total disregard for the political process. (show press release)
Hint: It’s not Bernie Sanders.
As seen in Jeff Spevak’s review, director Ralph Meranto admired Bloody whose Broadway run ended in 2011. For Ralph, the correlations between the rise of The Donald and “King Andrew” compelled him to restage Rochester’s first production of this musical comedy. As Ralph told Spevak, “it’s like [Trump]’s the reincarnation of Andrew Jackson.”
Others have seen historical parallels between the candidate and the 7th President. Back in February, NPR’s Steve Inskeep’s persuasive essay in the NY Times’s Op-Ed, Donald Trump’s Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson. asked, “Could Mr. Trump ride the Jackson vote to ultimate victory?” And while tonight’s play is performed Trump will be giving his acceptance speech in Cleveland.
At the same time — while the shades of Trump are glaring — Ralph was right when he told me the carefully crafted play touches upon universal themes in American politics and history.
When Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was developed in 2006 and premiered in January 2008, George Bush was President and Obama’s presidential run was on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
Audiences no doubt perceived the rock star aura of Obama, the war hero McCain, or George Bush invading Iraq as Baghdad would become a Trail of Tears. And future audiences will see in their leaders the same Jacksonian tension between the will of the people and the will to power.
Enticed to do my civic duty by a complimentary ticket to the show, last Sunday in the lobby before the performance myself and two others registered voters for the Rochester Rock the Vote campaign.
Perhaps given the audience — chock full of political junkies — no one needed to register, but a couple of people did update their addresses. And the show was more than reward for our efforts.
Having read Spevak’s review, I expected — and got — a history lesson made modern and lively through punk rock ballads and modern pop culture vernacular and witticisms: enhanced by little topical tweaks of the dialogue and a post show appearance by three familiar figures.
What I didn’t entirely expect was a seamless performance at a professional level at this my first SummerStage play. This year’s SummerStage cast members were between 15 and 23, but the play was light years past yet another high school Hello Dolly.
In the after show audience question-and-answer, the energy of the troupe was still bubbling. I saw the same synergy backstage yesterday when Jackson’s bumptious Mob posed with King Andrew the First and Second.
SummerStage attracts many of the most talented local actors from high schools and college. An All Star team playing a six week schedule of full theatrical immersion. Each cast member prepared by reading a 100 page digital historical resource packet provided by Dramaturg Eric Evans. Ralph told the cast not to watch the bootleg Youtube version of the Broadway production, but instead to create their own uninfluenced interpretations of the multiple characters all but one would be required to play.
But how did the SummerStage all star team pull it off?
Bloody is not an easy play to perform. It’s non-traditional, not deeply established with antecedents from which to draw. The multiple characters and free flowing action encourages and requires experimentation. For a relatively inexperienced crew, it was challenging.
Ralph explained how the new crew made Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson their own:
This cast was fearless. We knew going into it this show would be like no other musical they had worked on before. There was no “established” way to do it that the kids could watch on You Tube to emulate. We needed to start from scratch, almost like a world premiere. What made me pick this group of 16 was not just their talent, but their confidence and risk-taking at the auditions.
The show evolved from day one. We made constant changes to the show as we experimented. We even created new vocal harmonies and we switch songs from solos to duets and groups, male roles to female roles, etc. We tried different actors saying the same lines until we found the right fit of personify to the dozens of different characters they all play the show.
Before the Wednesday performance, Ben Miller (John Calhoun) said his biggest concern was how audiences would respond. As audiences had not read the 100 page packet, I wondered if Ben worried they would not know enough about Jackson. For Ben, it wasn’t whether they would know about Jackson, but would they care about Jackson.
At the end of the evening, after 90 minutes of in your face punk rock and scenes that brought home the legacy of Indian Removal and the reality of The Donald’s nomination, we laughed and cared.
ALSO ON THE GEVA THEATER CENTER