Over the last few theatre seasons, Mikel Matthews has been a terribly busy guy. In addition to acting in various dramas and comedies, he has also been active with the Carnivàle Debauche burlesque troupe, performed peerless improv with the Abe Froman Project, and spun some comedy gold doing stand-up. Oh, and he also just happens to have directed some of the biggest and most popular shows in the C-U area.
Up next for Matthews is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock musical that takes aim at our seventh President and serves up some dark (and sometimes controversial) laughs.
I recently caught up with Matthews, with whom I’ve collaborated a few times in the past, and we talked a bit about his latest project, which features the following cast:
Andrew Jackson………………..Corbin Dixon
Rachel, etc…………………………..Katarina Spungen
Storyteller, etc……………………..Brittany Helfrich
Bandleader, etc……………………David Butler
Elizabeth, etc……………………….Sally Hamer
Tour Guide, etc…………………….Stefanie Senior
Lynoya, etc…………………………..Marah Sotelo
John Quincy Adams, etc………..Sidney Germaine
Black Fox, etc……………………….Jay Kim
President Clay………………………Mark E. Fox
Martin Van Buren……………….James Haas
10 Little Indians soloist, etc…. Laura Anne Welle
Keokuk, etc……………………….Ninos Baba
Smile Politely: You’ve directed a variety of shows, from The Full Monty to The Producers, from Circle Mirror Transformation to, most recently, Rent. I spot a few similarities between these show, maybe, but is there a type of show you gravitate toward? What makes a show your “type?”
Mikel Matthews: Because of a somewhat twisted sense of humor, I have a tendency towards darker shows, but it’s not my only preference. To me, a show needs to either pull most of the strings of an audience (laughter, sorrow, grief, fear, sympathy, etc.) or be hysterically funny. There are a lot of shows that seem to aim for a general sense of “Well, that was fun! Now I can forget what I just watched.” It takes too much work for me to put on a show to have an audience walk away with a small, warm glow that fades the minute they hit fresh air.
Make them cry with laughter. Make them sob. Make them feel. Make them think. Otherwise, I’m not terribly interested.
If a show doesn’t excite me, and there’s nothing in it that I feel I can make mine, I pass it by. The shows I direct all have a moment that hooked me and gave me an idea that felt unique to me as a director. There’s no reason to copy someone else’s work.
SP: Last summer you directed Rent at the Station, and it was wildly popular. I know from talking to cast and crew of that production that it was very emotional for all involved; so much so that one would consider Rent a hard show to follow. What makes BBAJ a good next show?
Matthews: BBAJ is a delightful palate cleanser. Coming from Rent, trying to do a show that pulls all the strings could easily have made me feel like I was playing second fiddle to my own work. That comparison would be too recent in my mind to have completely left it behind. BBAJ goes so far afield in its raucous rock sensibilities that you can’t approach it in the same way you approach Rent. While BBAJ has a delightful heart of darkness hidden towards the end of the show, a lot of it is loud, funny, and aggressively aimed at the audience. The absurdity of much of the show is beautiful. With Rent, you juggle sympathy, joy, grief, angst, and pain. BBAJ is a feast of funny with some dashes of a more somber flavor towards the end.
SP: Nice. From the sound of it, this is right in your wheelhouse. Some humor, some flash, some humor. What was the casting process like? I know you’re working with some of your Rent performers again, with several new faces. What were you looking for in your leads and the rest of the cast?
Matthews: The good thing about casting was that we got a lot of wonderful U of I students involved in the show. The bad part about that is that we had to deal with vacations and the time crunch of not being able to audition them until after they knew what they were doing for the Spring semester [at Krannert]. We had so much talent come out that we cast more actors than we’d originally planned to. And some dropped out of the show because of circumstances beyond their control, so that actually brought us back to the original [needed] number.
For Andrew Jackson the character, we needed someone charismatic. For everyone else, we needed good comedic actors who could rock. I wasn’t sure who I’d find when we set out to cast the show (which is a rarity) but sometimes the right people pop up when you need them most.
SP: Obviously this show has elements of historical fiction. How does the stage Jackson compare to the real man?
Matthews: This show posits Andrew Jackson as an emo-rock, whiny brat who has some of the worst excesses of a rock star. He’s whichever of the Oasis brothers was a bigger pain in the butt mixed with some Dashboard Confessional and Green Day. However, the actual Andrew Jackson did some really awful things, the Trail of Tears among them. The show doesn’t shy away from these, and these become part of the spiral of despair that Andrew falls into. Because we have to earn the darkness of the end, the character has to be more than a stereotype. We’ve had to work to find a real person underneath the gigantic ego and let that lurk beneath the larger-than-life facade he puts on. When things go bad, he feels it deeply, but he lacks the maturity to handle it. That razor edge of Andrew Jackson is a large part of the trick of directing this show. The funny I can handle by feeling it.
SP: The Station is very intimate. Even notoriously so. What, if anything, does that do to your staging?
Matthews: I wanted a Blues Brothers-style cage for the band, and we got it. This squishes the space center stage, but opens up some pockets on either side. I’ve had a good amount of experience working with casts at the Station that are larger than our norm. Traffic is always a bit of a problem, but that gets worked out in rehearsals without too much effort. We didn’t want to muffle the drums and instruments for this show. We have three hand-held mics so that the singers can treat several of the songs more like an actual rock concert than a standard musical.
SP: You’re opening soon. How’s the process coming along?
Matthews: We finished the first run of the entire show tonight, and there are some incredibly funny things happening on stage. Over the next week, we’ll be polishing this show into a lean, incredibly funny, raucous and loud rock show with a spoiled brat at the center who has the magnetic personality of a rock star and the patience of a hungry baby. Tonight, several staff members who hadn’t seen the show before were rolling with laughter as we worked.
SP: It’s always a good sign when you can get the crew to laugh. Okay, Ten-Word Answer time. What should the audience expect from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?
Matthews: I think the audience can expect a good fucking time.
Enough said! For any of you unabashed fans of rollicking musical theater, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson opens Thursday, January 17, and continues through Saturday, February 2. Monday and Tuesday are dark nights (no performance), and tickets are available either by calling (217) 384-4000 or going to the Station website. Tickets are $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; $15 on Fridays and Saturdays.
Photo of Station Theatre by Doug Pugh.