|Righteous Jolly. Photo: Joe Del Tufo|
As soon as you enter the Black Box, it’s clear that this show is going to be something special. Instead of rows of seating on one side of the room, a narrow stage sits in the center, with tables and seating on either side, neon-lighting and a corner bar, which will become part of the scenery. The audience is warned that the actors will use the entire room (protect your drinks!). It’s easily the coolest stage setup I’ve seen in Delaware.
Jackson, awesomely played by Righteous Jolly, clad in a leather jacket with a shock of purple hair, is a cowboy and a rock star, the voice of the frontier and a stark contrast to the stuffy Washington elite. He’s also a bigot (he especially despises Indians, even though he adopts an Indian child), a ruthless killer and, eventually, a president who sees no use for Congress and the Supreme Court, only the will of the masses he’s rallied. He’s a great politician -- he defines the cult of personality. He rouses the people with speeches on the “common man.” He’s sexy and cool. You really do want to root for him -- and, in fact, the audience joins in on chants of “Jackson!” at one point. Amazing and not a little unsettling, but it’s part of what makes the play great.
|The ensemble. Photo: Joe Del Tufo|
While Jolly dominates, BBAJ is an ensemble piece, and the ensemble pulls no punches. Kerry Kristine McElrone is hilariously salacious as Rachel Jackson; Melissa Bernard has some of the funniest moments as various characters, most of them male; Jim Burns brings genuine emotion to the role of Black Fox; Frank Schierloh is a blast as John Quincy Adams; and Maggie Cogwell kills it as the storyteller and (via puppetry) Jackson’s young son Lyncoya. The biggest standout for me -- and let me be clear, no one is a dud -- is Adam Wahlberg, both in the ensemble and as Martin Van Buren, who goes from foppish as Jackson’s political adversary to the only grownup in the room as his vice president.
The music, directed by Joe Trainor, is infectious, with songs ranging from upbeat ensemble songs like “Populism, Yea, Yea!” to the haunting “Ten Little Indians.” Trainor even sings lead on a couple of songs, leaving his spot with the band to take the stage.
Fair warning: In order to portray Jackson with any semblance of historical accuracy, BBAJ is aggressively anti-PC in its humor, and full of profane language. This is not a show for the ultra-sensitive or the faint of heart. Jackson’s abhorrent treatment of the Indians is played for laughs, the Washington elite are portrayed as effeminate as if it’s a character flaw, and self-mutilation is cool (well, it is an emo musical). Pushing the bounds of taste as far as it does helps to keep from over-romanticizing Jackson -- though the play does leave out some unromantic details about his wealth and slave ownership by the time he ran for president (the play does mention that he acquired one slave as a young man, but not that he had well over 100 by the 1820s). Instead, we see his sexier scandals such as his apparent bigamy. And while some historical figure portrayals are unfair (John Quincy Adams as a clueless election-stealing spoiled brat is funny, but in reality he was one of the most fiercely anti-slavery leaders of the early 19th Century), the play doesn’t try to tell you that Jackson was a hero. It goes so far as to note that some historians see him as an “American Hitler.” And yet, on stage, he’s somehow sympathetic. Not because he’s a good man, but because he’s lost so much in his life and quest for the presidency. And he sure does throw a good party.
BBAJ Runs through May 12 at the Black Box. See www.city-theater.org for tickets, including special stage-side VIP seats (drinks included).