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Et Tu, Sondheim

October 16, 2012

If you want to make bank as a musical theatre creator, come up with a production that will have recycle value.

And if you can write something that will come into vogue, say, ooh, I dunno, every four years, then you’re really smart: Four years is just about enough time for people to want to see your show again. Any longer and the musical is likely to fall off producers’ radar; any shorter and your audience will soon suffer from fatigue.

How else, beyond election fever, to explain the popularity of works like Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?

Neither show is particularly good. And yet great Bay Area companies (as well as many others further afield) are mounting these works, at what looks like significant expense, in order to have something to present to audiences that’s “topical” as every fourth November rolls around.

Assassins, which looks at the history of U. S. presidential assassination attempts, has some witty lines. Sondheim is undeniably a great lyricist. But there isn’t one notable tune in the work and its shapeless, episodic structure quickly becomes monotonous. Shotgun Players production, directed by Susannah Martin with music direction by Dave Moschler, is fairly watchable on the whole. But not even the crack cast and production team can overcome the rhythm problems inherent in the piece. Plus there are some intonation and timing issues between the instrumentalists and the singers, which could be the result of the fact that the musicians’ view of the stage is impeded by the set design.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, doesn’t even have smart lyrics to recommend it. The show, which conceives of the country’s seventh president as a belligerent rock star, is just bloody awful. Grinding music, unlikeable, cardboard characters and boundless clichés more or less sum things up.

San Francisco Playhouse chose this musical as the opening show for its beautiful new 200-seat theatre at 450 Post Street near Union Square in San Francisco. I am excited about the company’s move up in the world. Being in the crowd on opening night was a privilege and a thrill. I only wish the company had picked a better project to launch its new digs with.

The stagey punk aesthetic, so tired at this point (Spring Awakening, American Idiot and their black eye-makeup and skinny denim’d theatrical siblings had their moment of squinting in the sun several years ago) grates on the nerves in director Jon Tracy’s one-note production. Plus, Ashkon Davaran (pictured) lacks the necessary charisma and sex appeal to play Andrew Jackson. Turning the character into an "everyman" figure with a scruffy mohawk and bad temper just doesn't seem to work. We have to be able to fall in love or at least lust with with the character in order to understand the "populism" which rules his campaign. But again, the rot isn’t as much to do with the cast and crew, as with the musical itself, which, as President Jackson himself likes to put it in the musical, "sucks."

Regardless of the quality of these two shows, they’re bound to sell ballot-box-fuls of tickets and are therefore canny business moves on the part of the Shotgun Players and San Francisco Playhouse managements. But can we not come up with any more engaging theatrical fodder for election season? Or are all election season productions necessarily bad? (David Mamet’s November is another unfortunate case in point.)

Let’s keep trying, I suppose. And in the meantime, we’ll always have Julius Caesar.


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