Monday, April 30, 2012

The CTC Rocks Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Righteous Jolly. Photo: Joe Del Tufo

It’s the rare production that’s as funny, entertaining, thought-provoking and utterly disturbing as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, City Theater Company’s latest offering, directed by Michael Gray. It’s a rock musical (or, more accurately, an emo musical, complete with punk rock/steampunk styling) about a pretty horrid era in American history, the birth of the Democrat party, and the second-most memorable president of the 19th Century.

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 for tickets, including special stage-side VIP seats (drinks included). 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

DTC Wears "Crowns" Proudly!

The Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) concludes its 33rd Season with the gospel musical, Crowns, written by Regina Taylor. The musical's familiar and joyful gospel songs and spirituals transports the DTC audience from a theatre in Wilmington to a southern Baptist church!

The story of Crowns is rather slim, but what can you expect from a musical based on a book of pictures? However, it's the uplifting and sometimes humorous music and performances that make Crowns a stirring and exciting production. The stellar cast directed by DTC favorite, Kevin Ramsey, brings their "A" game to the stage and ignites the theatre to a standing ovation at the conclusion of the show!

Yolanda, played by Ashlei Dabney, is a street-wise teenager living in Brooklyn with her family. After Yolanda's brother is killed, Yolanda is sent to live in the south with her grandmother (Mother Shaw), played by Barbara D. Mills.  Mother Shaw and her friends teach Yolanda about the historical and contemporary social functioning of the hats they wear to church and around town. Of course, life-lessons are taught through these stories.

The ensemble cast of six women and one man has a great rapport. Their soaring voices deliver such classics as "Oh When the Saints" and "I've Got Joy Like a Fountain". The lady sitting next to me couldn't resist singing along!  Ms. Mills' performance is stellar: she has a commanding, matriarchal presence that is needed in the portrayal of a good Christian southern woman who dons many hats. Listening to her sing is like being saved.  A performance that is not to be missed!

Oh, I can't forget to mention the crowns! Designed by Brian Strachan, the hats are large and colorful to match the stories of the women who wear them! The gorgeous hats will be sold at the end of the run, with the proceeds benefiting DTC.
Crowns runs through April 29th. For more information visit or call 302.594.1100. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Distant Voices: Bringing them Closer

I left Distant Voices Touring Theatre’s afternoon salon with a lot to think about. Like most people, I had learned about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in school. Yet the group’s vivid portrayal of Hiroaki Nishimura’s experience as an internee communicated this despicable chapter in our country’s history in a very personal, poignant way.
Founded in 1999 by Julie Nishimura and Danny Peak, the theater group produces and tours original plays based on American social justice events and issues. Actors Michelle Jacob Stradley, David Stradley and Danny Peak create the scene of Hiroaki Nishimura’s stark existence as a prisoner. Julie Nishimura plays a touching and powerful accompaniment on the piano. The music is by composers such as Copland, Debussy and Gershwin. Nishimura also plays compositions commissioned from Robert Hogenson, which are based on Japanese children’s music and folk songs.
Hiroaki Nishimura was interned in 1942 along with about 110,000 other Japanese Americans and Japanese. Though he becomes just “number 14786” to the US Government, he still takes pride in his country, celebrating the 4th of July along with fellow internees. It is not until 1960 that he is repatriated as an American citizen. The play, based on writings from his diary, details his dehumanizing experience.
The story of Hiroaki Nishimura, Julie Nishimura’s father and Danny Peak’s father-in-law, is an also an excellent teaching resource. The group has toured extensively in colleges and schools in this country and to the Artslink Festival in England. They have been recognized by Pacem in Terris with the Peacemakers Among Us award.
The group also performed portion of September Echoes, commission by Saints Andrew and Matthew church in Wilmington. The play deals with the repercussions of 9/11, while exploring themes of racism and human rights. Michelle Jacob Stradley plays Nadin Hamoui, a young Syrian-American who is jailed along with her mother, who eventually dies. The parallels between the internments of the Japanese Americans and the treatment of Arabs and Arab Americans are unmistakable.
With their thought provoking and moving pieces, perhaps Distant Voices Touring Theatre might help keep history from repeating itself.
The group will perform Distant Voices in its entirety at the Newark Public Library on April 29 at 2:00.
For more information about Distant Voices Touring Theatre: