Walk into the Jacobs Theater, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson envelops you long before you sit down. Red Christmas lights and twinkly chandeliers are strung every which way over the orchestra seats, the columns are wrapped in pelts and rawhide laces, and there’s scraggly-looking taxidermy hanging from every available surface. You can barely see the stage, which is low; the blood-red seats almost blend right into the footlights. It’s a spectacular first impression. Donyale Werle, the scenic designer, has a lot to be proud of, and ought to have a Tony on the mantel next year.
And then the show starts. “You ready?” Benjamin Walker, as Andrew Jackson, bellows to the audience, indie-rock-show-style. “Are you ready?!” And with that, the sense that you’re going to be brought in, drawn in, made emotionally one with the material — all of it evaporates. The set may be wide open, but dialogue is so laden with ironic distance that the proscenium practically looms back into view, pushing back the audience.
Every character onstage, from power-hungry Jackson to flighty Martin Van Buren to dopey John Quincy Adams, delivers deliberately dumb lines in deliberately clueless tones, like a bunch of 25-year-old Williamsburghers, arching their eyebrows so we know that they know they’re idiots. (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, in particular, plays Van Buren uncannily like Absolutely Fabulous’s Edina Monsoon.) There’s even a Cher moment, complete with disco ball, inserted strictly for an easy pop-culture laugh. The tone is set by the show's present-day narrator, a frump in a teddy-bear sweater and dorky glasses who arrives on one of those motorized wheelchairs with a flag strapped to the back. She is meant to stand for the stodgy correctness of schoolroom history, and might have been a convenient way to provide the timeline to the audience. But she ends up simply becoming fodder for easy, superior titters.
The story, by Alex Timbers (of the troupe Les Freres Corbusier) and Michael Friedman (who wrote the music and lyrics for Saved!), begins with Andrew Jackson's tough Tennessee upbringing, and, as directed by Timbers, Walker plays him like a minor character in a Kevin Smith movie — an anomic suburbanite, driven to power because he was tired of hanging around the frontier 's 7-Eleven. “Life sucks,” Walker sings, “and my life sucks in particular.” Before long, though, he's bellowing: “Who am I? I’m Andrew fucking Jackson!” (The word "fuck" should be listed as an additional character here.
Remember when your parents used to say that cursing was the refuge of people with limited vocabularies? They were onto something.)
Timbers and Friedman have, admittedly, set themselves a tough goal. They aim to write about populism and the monstrosity of all-American genocide, and make their point not just with humor but with the highly colloquial, we-know-all-about-theatrical-conventions-and-therefore-violate-them manner of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. The first half-hour, in fact, might've been the best UCB show you ever saw, run amok — a fast-moving Harold improv scene that just keeps going. The creators are aided
by a lot of superior (and good-looking) talent onstage, especially the super-tight band (which participates in the action) and the super-tight-panted Walker. As Jackson, he has a serious voice and a big, athletic stage presence. But he’s directed to take his character all over the place: now powerful, now whiny and ineffectual, here clownish, there vicious. We never quite get what he is.
As the story develops, the allusions to contemporary politics get more and more explicit. “Take a stand / Against the elite,” a cowgirl character sings, and Jackson’s sympathies with the frontier and irritation at the government and banks back East escalate. Timbers and Friedman grasp that populism cuts both ways, and that getting elected takes a very different skill set from actually governing. Wisely, they are just as willing to take pokes at Obama as at Palin and Bush — even if they're fairly obvious. (As is one “dabble in witchcraft” gag, but at least it’s fun and fresh.)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is 90 minutes long, and around minute 70, I began to despair of it. I started to wonder: Surely the whole play couldn't be about just that — facile, glib language mirroring a facile, racist political movement. Or maybe it was simply suffering from the move to Broadway, another show that originated in a small space dying in a big house. (A friend who saw Bloody, Bloody at the Public told me the next day that the humor had become broader and shtickier, and the music less powerful.) But then, finally, mercifully, something grabbed hold. The moment comes when the playwrights finally address what they care about in this tale: the Trail of Tears, the genocidal murder of tens of thousands of Native Americans. Suddenly they cannot fail to be genuine, and while they don’t snap into full solemnity, much of the aw-screw-it dialogue drops by the wayside. Finally, the show escaped across the footlights, out into the real world. It was an intense fifteen minutes that hinted at how powerful the show could be. If only it had come an hour earlier.
Sometimes a funhouse mirror is more accurate than the one in the bathroom. There’s not a show in town that more astutely reflects the state of this nation than “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the rowdy political carnival that is sprawled all over the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, where it opened on Wednesday night.
This invigorating production — a fractured portrait of the life and times of the seventh president of the United States — is hardly a work of fine-grained naturalism, or a probing docudrama, or even a “Crucible”-style parable that elicits knowing nods about the parallels between then and now. It’s an anachronism-cluttered emo-rock musical, for heaven’s sake — that is, when it’s not being a smart-aleck collegiate revue or a folkie song fest with a furrowed brow.
Yet even more than the first time I saw it in a concert version in 2009, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” created by Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), feels unconditionally (and alarmingly) of the moment. The show’s theme song? An angry little number called “Populism Yea Yea,” in which the chorus roars, “And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”
In tracing a restless young nation’s teenage crush on a down-home, rifle-toting maverick (played with omnisexual swagger by Benjamin Walker), this musical suggests that when it comes to selecting their leaders, Americans never outgrew adolescence. Though its style is often as skewed as a tilt-a-whirl ride, “Bloody Bloody” takes precision aim at its central target: an impatient electorate ruled by a hunger for instant gratification.
“Bloody Bloody,” which is vertiginously directed with wit high and low by Mr. Timbers, also portrays what happens to a rough-hewn rebel like Jackson when he winds up in a fancy place like the White House. And it’s tempting to draw an analogy about the arrival of this show on Broadway. A runaway downtown hit at the Public Theater last spring, “Bloody Bloody” is both smarter and cruder than your average Broadway fare.
Unlike other rock musicals in Midtown, including “American Idiot” and “Memphis,” this one doesn’t deliver big, clean, throbbing emotions. Irony is woven into its fabric, but it’s not the easy irony of mock news shows on television. Mr. Friedman’s songs, cast in the hip but anguished mode of bands like Dashboard Confessional, could be described as postironic. They’re achingly sincere, even as they send up aching sincerity, hot and cool in one breath.
The performance style — which is correspondingly both casual and intense — may register as sloppy to audiences used to mechanically synchronized chorus lines and voices ironed smooth by amplification. Nor does the rambunctious cast, choreographed to boogie like demented Las Vegas showgirls by Danny Mefford, traffic in the kind of all-out “love me, love me” pandering that we expect from the young and talented.
Or it didn’t downtown, anyway. In its current incarnation “Bloody Bloody” falters only when its ensemble members try to milk laughter from comic bits that should not be prolonged. The show has to sustain a hit-and-run pace, or shrug-of-the shoulders cool can start to look sloppy. In other words, stay arrogant, kids; let them come to you.
In most ways, though, this production has been refashioned for Broadway in ways that do not betray its core of ornery ambivalence. The Jacobs Theater has been transformed by the set designer, Donyale Werle, into a loopy Wild West side show, strung with both multicolor fairy lights and hanging examples of the taxidermist’s art. This approach extends and heightens the show’s jumble-sale aesthetic without overpackaging.
The eminently professional Kristine Nielsen, who specializes in artful dementia, has been brought in to lend Broadway-style ballast to the small but crucial role of the Storyteller. And she brings a measured spritz of eau de goofball to the part, a perky pedant in a motorized wheelchair, whose Jackson worship goes sour in a savagely funny moment of time-traveling violence.
As for Mr. Walker, whose credits include the Broadway revivals of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and “Inherit the Wind,” he has the charisma and polish to rule any stage, uptown or down. His Jackson, whom he portrays from backwoods boyhood to uneasy afterlife, is a study in the ravenous, paranoia-driven urge to seduce and conquer that we associate with world leaders and rock stars. (“Rock Star,” by the way, is the title of the song in which Jackson achieves apotheosis, and it is on its own aresonant capsule history lesson.)
As he must be, Mr. Walker’s Jackson is the spirit of the show writ large, willfully dopey and vibrantly shrewd. It’s not easy to bring off scenes of blood-flooded self-laceration, like Jackson here partakes of with the love of his life, Rachel (the appealingly straightforward Maria Elena Ramirez). Or to turn on a wooden nickel from evangelical rabble-rousing to whiny public self-humiliation. But Mr. Walker has a star’s gift for paradox, which is, after all, an essential quality for anyone who would be president and embody the contradictions of the multitudes.
People saw glorified versions of themselves in Jackson, a point brought home here in a series of spot-on face-in-the-crowd testimonials that sound like every other election ad now being broadcast. You might think of him as a sort of moonshine shindig equivalent of a Tea Party candidate, though the implicit allegory here is far broader than that. (I thought of Barack Obama’s grass-roots campaign the first time I saw this show.)
Of course when Jackson couldn’t be all things to all people, they turned on him. He was no longer the mirror in which they saw themselves. On the other hand, the image presented in this shaggy, devastatingly insightful show is likely to remain a true reflection of these United States for many years to come.