As of tonight, grand little San Francisco Playhouse is a splendid medium-sized company. Leaving its 99-seat hole in the wall on Sutter Street, where it has been performing miracles for years, the Playhouse opened its 10th season in a new home on Post Street, the former Theater on the Square.
The theater with 700 capacity is now the 200-seat Walter Casper Teufel Jr. Auditorium, named in honor of the bequest from the family of Teufel, who died this year.
Where have the 500 seats gone? Mostly to enlarge the stage, which now seems as deep as the downstairs seating area.
Opening the theater and the anniversary season: Michael Friedman’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” with book by Alex Timbers. It is a damn damn funny rock musical.
Confession time: I never met a rock musical I liked. This is a first. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, engrossing, clever, and it features a cast of a dozen incredible human (are they?) dynamos. A great plus: the amplification doesn’t cause internal bleeding (thank you, sound designer Brendan Aanes).
Confession No. 2: This former American Studies major didn’t know half of the Jackson story presented here – and that doesn’t even include mostly delicious anacronistic bits. So, discounting the persistent “frank language” (oh me, oh my!), this is a rock musical that’s also highly edukashional.
The story of the seventh President (1767–1845) verges on the improbable. Using ridiculously small armies, Jackson conquered British, Spanish and Native American forces, expanding the U.S. territory more than anyone else. “Old Hickory” founded the Democratic Party and gave his name to Jacksonian Democracy, empowering common citizens over the Founders’ aristocracy. He also supported slavery and was responsible for the wholesale genocide of Indian tribes.
How do you make a musical out of that? Not very carefully: “BBAJ” is robust, profane, bold, edgy, everything goes. The way it works and the “dare we laugh?” audience reaction are similar to “Jerry Springer, the Opera.” Jon Tracy’s direction is a seamless and faultless.
On the huge stage, with Nina Ball’s grand and yet simple set design, the dozen actor-singer-dancers romp nonstop, exhausting only the viewers, not themselves. Ashkon Davaran is terrific as Jackson, a larger-than-life figure, but not overdoing it. He is the only one in the cast portraying only one character; the others do double, triple duty or more.
The busiest, most forceful performances belong to El Beh (who acts, sings, dances, plays the cello, and makes “10 Little Indians” a song to remember), Safiya Fredericks (whose ensemble work is a bonus to her Henry Clay and Black Fox), and Michael Barrett Austin, whose Martin Van Buren is a Three-Stooges-in-One.
Ann Hopkins is the Storyteller, explaining, illustrating, getting hurt by characters from the past, eventually killed, but that’s not the end of her! Musical leadership belongs to Jonathan Fadner, the bandleader. William Elsman’s John C. Calhoun, Lucas Hatton’s James Monroe, Olive Mitra’s John Quincy Adams, and – in a surprisingly lyrical way – Angel Burgess’ Rachel Jackson all shine.
However discreetly stage manager Maggie Koch moves large objects and makes props and costumes appear/disappear, her contribution is obvious and laudable.
Read up on Jackson, go to San Francisco Playhouse, and then read some more. A remarkable historic figure, outstanding theater.