"I'm not one that's into plug-and-play," says Ron Shreve, 26, director of the production of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" being staged at Players By the Sea.
Even though the musical — with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, and book by Alex Timbers — has drawn critical acclaim on- and off-Broadway in its original form (it was a 2011 Tony nominee), the team of volunteers Shreve has assembled for this production was keen to put its own stamp on the material, in part because the subject is a man whose legacy lingers to this day.
Just two weeks out from the show's debut, loose ends were still being tied up.
"There is no final product until the curtain comes up," said Nicholas Sacks, who portrays our seventh president.
Shreve and Sacks sat facing each other across a corner table at Chamblin's Uptown, explaining the process, calmly kinetic, tired and energized at once — two months' work done, one more to go.
Born to a widow near the North Carolina border town of Waxhaw, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) is arguably the toughest man to ever hold the presidency, which covers a lot of ground. He was a key architect of the South as we know it today, the first governor of Florida, an ace duelist, and the living embodiment of Manifest Destiny, for better and for worse. He was also a ginger. Born before America itself, Jackson's efforts wet-nursed the nascent nation.
Shreve received the script in late April and began auditions in early May. The story is a rowdy, iconoclastic look at Jackson's career from fighting the British, the Indians and the Spaniards to creating the Democratic Party to give ordinary frontier folks a voice. In one song, the chorus sings, "And we're gonna take this country back for people like us, who don't just think about things." It's set to an emo score with country-punk riffs.
Jennifer Johnston plays Jackson's beloved wife, Rachel (whose good name drove him to kill several people); 9-year-old Dante Gonzalez appears as his ill-fated "adopted" son, Lyncoya.
"Usually, you get a show, you get a musical director and a choreographer, and it's kind of segmented," Shreve said. "In this case, it was really about bringing [everyone] into the project. The cast has really created a lot of the show. It's different, because everyone involved really had a major hand in the production. … Not only are you seeing the show, but you're kind of seeing Jacksonville and all of its elements together in one place."
The crew includes choreographer Jess Pillmore, musical director Jocelyn Geronimo, vocal director Matt Morgan and dance captain Anna Wheeler. The cast also includes Ryan Arroyo, Daniel Austin, Harrison Breault, Ross Fronz, Megan Georgeo, Sadie LaMana, Trey Lewek, Brandon Mayes, Christy Mull, Chris Robertson, Abigail Saenz, Josh Taylor and Anna Wheeler.
Rehearsals ran as long as three hours; each one started with 30 minutes of intense conditioning for the actors to get acclimated with the physicality of their roles.
"You don't really find the true essence of the story until you're performing it," Sacks said. "Then, you're on your own. That's when it's up to the artists on the stage to create the story and to tell it truthfully. In these short runs that we get, it's the 12th show that you finally get it."
Sacks, 19, plays Jackson from age 4 into his 70s, spending almost the entire 90 minutes of the show onstage. Ironically, he has the fewest costume changes, starting with a white shirt that gets progressively redder. The pressure of channeling "the visceral emotion that creates Jackson" doesn't spook him.
"I get more pumped-up as it goes on," Sacks said.
This is how he's spending the summer after his first year at Carnegie Mellon University. His parents met while acting in a Players production 20 years ago, so to say he's a natural is an understatement.
Ultimately, it makes perfect sense that the musical's Southeast debut is in the city that bears the same name. After all, not only was the city named for him in his own lifetime, but he hadn't even become president yet. Though Jackson never actually set foot in Jacksonville, you might say this city reflects his values, vices and temperament.
What would he think of this production? Sacks has no doubt: "He'd probably want more booze and more sex!" Maybe, but Jackson would probably say the same about almost everything.