Thursday, October 07, 2010

THEATER: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Retelling the rise of Andrew Jackson, our nation's seventh president, as a rock musical is a daring choice--to be expected of writer Alex Timbers (of Les Freres Corbusier) and musician Michael Friedman (a genius with the Civilians)--and one that befits the "people's president," a man, played by the angsty Benjamin Walker, who wears tight tight jeans and talks about some serious serious shit. This is Andrew Fucking Jackson, but though the musical points out the dangers of all that populist energy--the genocidal relocation of Indian tribes, the constant Supreme Court censures, the outlandish conduct--Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson falls prey to that same erratic fervor.

The first half of the show (which runs without intermission) comes across with the exaggerated satire of Matt Stone and Trey Parker (both Cannibal! and South Park): when Jackson's mother dies of cholera, she is struck down with the sound of an arrow's twang; after the rest of his family dies, Injuns do a mock ballet. And just wait until the doily-wearing, high-pitched politicians--John Quincy Adams (Jeff Hiller) and Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) stand out--come out with their evil laughs. These events are recklessly narrated too by a nerdy and gushingly hormonal Storyteller (Kristine Nielsen), who is detested by the cast, much like a device from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and later killed. (Into The Woods got there first.) The play cherishes its outlandish moments, too: when Jackson meets the woman who will be his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), the two sing about inappropriate metaphors, all while bleeding themselves (a medical cure back in the day) and then pouring the blood all over one another. Look at us, look at us, look at us, it shouts; change, change, change; we're different. Not so, however: there isn't a single thing here that Spring Awakening didn't do better, nor Rent before it.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is already packed full of significance and--in its populist, tea-party mania-- relevance, but the show always feels like it's reaching for laughs. It's not until the latter half of the play, once Jackson's on his way to office, that the excesses are purged from its system, revealing the a strong backbone of raging songs: one which details the removals of Indian tribes with the assistance of Black Fox (Bryce Pinkham), and his anthemic 1828 campaign song, "Better Off Dead," which keens for action. There's also a great song and dance that sums up the political chicanery by which Jackson lost the 1824 election--despite winning more popular and electoral votes than the other candidates.

It's a vivacious history lesson, one that earns the term it coins: "Emocracy." But it's an unwieldy play in need of a stronger director than Alex Timbers--after all, how can he be expected to fairly edit his own text? Jokes land all over the place, and even the charismatic Walker rarely connects with the audience--even when he jumps down and flirts with the front row. His voice has an absurd range, but within the show, he mainly sticks to squealing about the unfairness of the system and then whipping out a gun and threatening to do something about it. His wife dies, his presidency seems to falls apart, we don't ever see his re-election, and yet we still know very little about Jackson. Perhaps that's appropriate for our era of Celebrity Politics, in which populist candidates like Palin go largely unvetted and can't be figured out, but it makes for a bloodless night of theater.

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