Studio’s ‘Bloody Jackson’ Rocks at 2nd Stage
There is always one sure sign of summer in Washington. Besides the four horsemen of the weather apocalypse we are experiencing: 100-degree heat, falling trees, power outages and sopping humidity.
That would be whatever contemporary sounding outrageous theatrics coming out of the Studio Theater 2nd Stage summer production—usually a musical—make. In years past, it’s taken the form of high-and-very-low opera about Jerry Springer, the rhythm of beat poetry, Droogs singing in the rain, the squeals of “Reefer Madness,” and the boys and girls from “Hair.”
And now—in a mad election summer no less—we have a rock musical about Andrew Jackson, our seventh president, the populist leader who created Democrats, invited the people to the White House en mass, fought duels, led the expulsion westward of Native American tribes, national bank, and had, for all his populist bent, a thoroughly autocratic way about him.
All of the stories and qualities of Andrew Jackson are on display in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the off-Broadway rock and emo-rooted musical which poses Jackson in the role of loud, angry and very sexy rock star. And let’s not forget: it is a 2nd Stage show.
“It fits right in with our summer criteria,” said Keith Alan Baker, the Studio Theater’s managing director and 2nd Stage artistic director. “For our summer shows, we usually try to have a production that was a successful show Off-Broadway the season before or so, often a musical. At 2nd Stage, we have given ourselves the latitude and mission of putting on plays and shows that are different, unusual, and attractive to all sorts of theater audiences. I’d say ‘Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson’ fits the bill.”
The bill at 2nd Stage has hardly been uniform—the summer musicals and usually a fare of three other plays including “new plays by new, young and up and coming American or English playwrights,” and “some things that would appear to have no category which this year included the Japanese-comics sourced “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” as well as “The Big Meal.”
Baker, who just celebrated his 50th birthday, hardly looks or acts his age. He carries a genial curiosity about him like some loosely-worn, very cool t-shirt. Looking back, it seems more like the distance, the journey, the volume of work and plays, being part of the rise, and rise of the Studio Theatre, under founder Joy Zinoman and now artistic director David Muse still has the power to amaze him.
Like 2nd Stage itself, Baker seems like a good mix of the expression of the Studio Theatre history and image, a combination of straight ahead determination, intellectual curiosity and eclecticism, a streak of veering off often into the road least traveled and ending up with the shining and successful theatrical enterprise that exists today.
Baker, who hails from east Texas—a good place to be from without living there, he says—combines a solid work ethic with a bit of a bad boy attitude, trying out material that’s not necessarily safe. In this he had the cooperation of Zinoman who “basically left us alone.” Baker and Kathi Lee Redmond, wife of actor Larry Redmond, started 2nd Stage up in the 1988-1989 season with two plays—“Hard Times” and “Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks”, then hit a mother lode with the irascible playwright Christopher Durang’s “Laughing Wild”. “It was a big hit, and money wise, one of the big successes in Studio history.
Since 1986, Baker has been a presence at Studio Theatre in one form or another in almost every aspect of the workings of the theater, including the journey from a small space on Church Street to the new complex on 14th and P Street, which became one of the major engines for the revitalization of the neighborhood. “I did everything here,” Baker said. “Tickets, box office, house manager (one of the guys with walkie talkies), fund raising, which was an enlightening experience.” We were talking at a window seat at the theater where you could look out at the bustling street and see the condos now occupying the theater’s old site. “You probably remember what it was like around here way back in the 1980s,” Baker said, thinking about it. “If you came to see a play here, you made a commitment, the neighborhood was still dangerous, undeveloped. Look at it now.”
“Laughing Wild” was followed in later years by other 2nd Stage successes, most notably in terms of the theater community, a production of “Hair” that was electric, intimate, and perfectly captured the iconic heart of the 1960s paean to the rock and roll counter culture. It also won the Helen Hayes award for best resident musical which Baker gleefully, giddily and profanely accepted.
When 2nd Stage hit its strides and marks, it could be memorable: “Kerouac,” for instance, managed to inhale and embrace the world of the beat artists and poets with perfection. “We had a little help there,” Baker said. “There was a bar in Georgetown which had closed and had a sale of its stuff and we carted most of it over and used it for a set.”
Other highlights: “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” a disturbing set-to-music event where audiences where often became swept up in the crazed talk show host’s world; “Reefer Madness,” a wild musical version of a 1930s cautionary film about the dangers of, well, reefers, and most recently, in 2010, the passing strange, evocative “Passing Strange.”
There is an iconoclastic quality to the plays that are part of the 2nd Stage history, obviously shared by Baker. It is about surprises and doing surprising things, entertaining the next thing before they happen. “2nd Stage has always been about the process, not the space,” Baker said.
“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” already a hit, has been extended through Aug. 19 — www.studiotheatre.org. ★