Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 2, 2010
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the unbridled rock musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, elevates the seventh U.S. president to iconic status in an uninterrupted 90 minutes of pure fun. Everything about Andrew Jackson is hyperbolic: the intriguingly jam-packed set, hyperventilated pacing, and revisionist history built on the broad brush strokes of fact. This is American history made relevant and memorable, if not a little silly.
At the start, The Storyteller narrates, following an early-orphaned Andrew Jackson as he makes his way in the Wild West. In a series of SNL-like vignettes and stylized tableaus, he fights the British, the Spanish, and the Indians, assuming the role of protector of the frontier. When he is home, Jackson and his wife, Rachel, settle down to a life of self-healing through cutting. There is enough blood to warrant the play's title. Jackson grows in stature with each new "accomplishment." He relocates Native American tribes in an unabashed land grab; challenges the one-party system by creating the Democratic Party; and garners enormous power for the executive branch of the government in an effort to represent the people directly. He is a bold, attractive man, with a magnetic personality. He has the confidence and ego of a rock star with an adoring public. And, Jackson governs as a populist president, asking the people directly how to resolve specific conflicts.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson feels big, wayward, un-self-conscious, and messy—all in a positive sense—thanks, in large part, to Timbers, who wrote the book and directs. He directs with a knowing hand and with his tongue firmly in cheek. Tableaus move rapidly into skits, skits into cabaret, and pep rallies turn into rock concerts—pushing the pace forward and sliding from genre to genre as smoothly as you please. Donyale Werle's set adds to the larger-than-life fantasy by littering the entire theatre with old artifacts from great-great-great-grandmother's dimly-lit attic. Taxidermies are mounted, some covered in plastic. Crystal chandeliers are everywhere, and red velvet drapes are aptly stored. Framed oils of U.S. presidents line the walls on either side of the audience; accumulated memorabilia—dart boards and the like—are stacked, chock-a-block, throughout. The objects hint at adventures of a bygone era. They feel as if they are deeply buried beneath their own weight. Drums, piano, guitar, and bass dot the dark, modest stage, and the musicians fade into the debris as they actually play Michael Friedman's credible, emo score. While Friedman's lyrics are predictable, the overall musical presentation makes up for them.
Lighting designer Justin Townsend contributes a sense of fun as he boldly illuminates the production with everything at his disposal—flashing lights, neon, strobe, spot, as if to say, "Hey, it's a new age and we won't be left behind!" Bart Fasbender designed sound and the marvelous sound effects that come from the "thwack" of arrows hitting their mark, and Emily Rebholz created rich costumes that carry the audience from the West with fringed suede jackets and raccoon hats to Washington, D.C.'s black cutaways.
The cast brings this biographical spoof to life. Benjamin Walker is convincing as the charismatic, populist Andrew Jackson. He is tall, trim, energetic, and sexy. He holds the mike like Elvis, and his hair drips with sweat in just the right way. He swaggers in a tight, blood-soaked shirt, conjuring the comfort level of, say, Mick Jagger, toward the end of a manic set. He walks above the crowd, not in it. His cast-mates are equally supportive. Maria Elena Ramirez is strong as the soulful wife, Rachel, demonstrating appropriate disappointment when she fails to keep her man at home; as Jackson's vice-president Martin Van Buren, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe understands the merit of comic timing; Colleen Werthmann gives us plenty to laugh about in her depiction of The Storyteller; and Emily Young croons "Ten Little Indians" cabaret-style to fine effect. The rest of the cast contribute depth and texture, each in specific and unexpected ways.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson inspires thought about this very popular president's legacy. How to reconcile his role in displacing the Native Americans? In taking their land? Timbers and Friedman fill this serious subject with humor and deliver a thoroughly entertaining history lesson, although given the tendency to revise history, I would check the facts before quoting them. Still, I wish my high school history class had been as interesting.