Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 2010
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Written by Alex Timbers. Music & lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Scenic design by Donyale Werle. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Sound design by Bart Fasbender. Music director by Justin Levene. Music coordinator by Seymour Red Press. Fight direction by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum. Cast: Benjamin Walker, with James Barry, Darren Goldstein, Greg Hildreth, Jeff Hiller, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Cameron Ocasio, Bryce Pinkham, Nadia Quinn, Maria Elena Ramirez, Kate Cullen Roberts, Ben Steinfeld, Emily Young, Heath Calvert, Aiden Eyrick, Erin Felgar, Eli James, Joe Jung, Maria-Christina Oliveras, and Kristine Nielsen.
Where the dynamic young star Benjamin Walker once shot through the role of America's first emo sex symbol with the honest intensity of a hurtling comet, his focus has shifted to other matters that prevent his current administration from being quite as rosy as the ones that came before. It's the difference between a major political figure who "doesn't mind" being mocked on late-night talk shows, and one that always walks around with a smirk, telegraphing that he's in on the joke.
What has always made this musical, with a book and direction by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, so scintillating since its first airing at The Public Theater a year ago and again there earlier this spring is the swirling paradox at its core. Conventional theatrical wisdom would not suggest that a man who conducted most of his life and his greatest fame (or, if you prefer, infamy) during the early 19th century could somehow perfectly embody the whine-tinged "emotional hardcore" musical style made popular in the real world nearly 200 years later. Yet in equating the historically volatile America with a torn-every-way pop star, that's the synthesis Timbers and Friedman so stunningly achieved.
At first, Walker proved ideal for the part - not looking anything like "Old Hickory," true, but blending with grand brio the rocky past with a rock-and-roll future. He's still a magnetic presence as he guides you through several decades of the tumultuous history Jackson oversaw. From fighting in the Revolutionary War to his governorship of Florida and eventually a controversial tenure in the White House (which is colored even today by his handling of "the Indian Question"), he's exactly the "hero" the story needs in terms of his ability to inspire the populace to the belief that they're in total control of their destiny, and he's only the conduit through which their dreams will thrive, though he can't remotely say the same thing about himself.
For this tricky conceit to work, Jackson must thoroughly believe both his and his show's propaganda. And that's what's changed: Pushing harder, faster, and funnier through the persona of this divisive uniter, Walker now reveals too early and too easily that this man isn't (and cannot be) who he says he is. The Broadway Jackson now knows he's a fraud and in over his head, and without having to discover it in the show's final minutes during a devastating takedown by the show's history- and hunk-loving Storyteller (the ever-bubbly Kristine Nielsen), it's hard to fall into the necessary trap of sympathizing - even temporarily - with him or his goals.
That's no small achievement for a musical that shrieks of its bicameral "downtown" provenance (of Friedman's The Civilians and Timbers's Les Freres Corbusier) with nearly every line and lyric invoking the likes of political populism, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Trail of Tears. (A few new references, to a popular liberal Tea Party slur and to Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, feel strained, however.) But the entire creative team has likewise risen to the challenge, with set designer Donyale Werle especially triumphant in changing the Jacobs into a comfortably claustrophobic lodge hall that perfectly blends early-1800s indelicacy with modern scenic-kitsch sensibilities. (Costume designer Emily Rebholz and lighting designer Justin Townsend are perhaps less overtly schizophrenic, but no less effective.)
But the impact is significantly reduced when the charismatic leader at the center of it all isn't committed to proving how every American Head of State is an important part of just the same kind of History's Pawn Shop: trading what he wants for what the people wants, sometimes paying with actual money and sometimes having to fork over the legacy he so longed to create. Whether Walker, like Jackson, has lost sight of the nature of the enthusiasm that put him in office in the first place is not completely clear, but he's now playing the role as a lame duck before Jackson ever even eyes 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As the Storyteller says herself, in her most withering moment, "You can't shoot history in the neck." Walker and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson have always been dedicated to proving her right, but these days you can't help but wonder if they might do better first by giving their own concept a rejuvenating shot in the arm.