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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Benjamin Walker with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

A celebrity-style president who rides into the White House on a tidal wave of popular support, arouses the ire of his establishment colleagues, and is dogged by questions of his experience, his relationship to race, and his attempts to redraw America to match his own unique vision of it. No, the latest entry (a musical, no less) in The Public Theater's Public LAB series is not about Barack Obama, or even the 20th century at all. The title tells you almost everything: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. What it leaves out is that its target isn't just still-controversial seventh President of the United States, but also Spring Awakening.

Well, not just the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik Tony winner, but shows like it. With (intentionally) amateurish acting, (intentionally) poorly- and non-plotted and flat-out disconnected songs, and an (intentionally) irreverent attitude toward subjects of abject seriousness, this absorbingly effective riff on emo narrative by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman is as much a comment on the ragged quality of this kind of storytelling as it is a story itself. And because of its intelligence, its wit, and the undercurrent of maturity that buoys its childishness, this is in no way the pandering, least-common-denominator evening it mocks every chance it gets.

But there's a more important fusion at work here than simply musical theatre and whine rock. Librettist-director Timbers is the artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier and Michael Friedman is the house composer of The Civilians, and the uniting of these two downtown titans on a project of this audacity is a match made in theatre utopia. Timbers's knack for rampantly visionary entertainment and Friedman's grip on pungent social commentary combine to make something deeper, richer, and hotter than either has previously devised alone, all within a searing context that commands your attention and demands your assent to its absurdities.

On the face of it, one cannot easily fathom Jackson (Benjamin Walker), the first president (elected in 1829) who was not also a founding father, repeatedly advertising the tightness of his jeans or singing to his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), "If ya feel like you might throw up / Well, that's a metaphor for how I feel / When I dream of you." Yet as events unfold, the comparison between Jackson and a soul-bearing singer-songwriter becomes increasingly apt. Both husband and wife cut themselves as cures for their physical and psychological ills. Jackson is forever warring with the more popular kids (aka recent former presidents). And his decisive but shortsighted answer to "the Indian Question" is every bit the work of a shallow boy whose gaze seldom extends beyond his own nose.

Timbers and Friedman address everything from Jackson's traumatic boyhood to his adult expansionistic tendencies with unflinching detail and unremitting flair, but they refuse to let the almost-continuous humor disrupt their compelling portrait of this complex man. Nor do they take sides: Jackson's representative behavior toward - and westward push of - Native Americans blossoms as both a humanistic atrocity and as a necessary component of Manifest Destiny. When Jackson protests later being seen by some as "an American Hitler," his quadriplegic biographer (Colleen Werthmann) explains, "You can't shoot history in the neck."

Benjamin Walker with Darren Goldstein, Bryce Pinkham, Ben Steinfeld, Jeff Hiller, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It's because Timbers and Friedman don't even try that they get away with as much as they do. Presenting Jackson's Washington betters (Darren Goldstein, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Bryce Pinkham, Ben Steinfeld, and a hilarious Jeff Hiller as a mentally defective John Quincy Adams) as vice-addled upper-class parasites ratchets you into the thick of the club Jackson was trying to crash. The populist fervor that built and brutalized Jackson is painstakingly dissected, sometimes from within the Oval Office and sometimes from the edge of a mosh pit. The influence of Native Americans on Jackson's personal and professional life is movingly reflected in how he treats both his adopted Indian son, Lyncoya (David Axelrod), and his trusted-but-untrustworthy advisor, Black Hawk.

These issues and others, however, are never marginalized within the driving groove of Timbers's songs, which define the proceedings' silly-soulful character in their percussive piano-bass-guitar strains and wrenchingly confessional lyrics. No, it's the history, not the score, that's the raison d'ĂȘtre, so the songs directly serve the action even when they don't seem to. The gimmick never gets old because it's constantly changing: The restless seething of the earlier scenes becomes almost contemplative later on and, in a particularly unsettling moment, gives way to ear-splitting silence.

But everything is superbly balanced. The cast, led by an electric Walker as the broodingly inaccessible sex-symbol Jackson and packed with quirky comic actors, has more personality than any other in town. The band (led by Justin Levine), the lights (and Justin Townsend), and the costumes (Emily Rebholz) beautifully complement the presiding exhibitionist aesthetic. And Donyale Werle's set is remarkable, a frontier tavern that giddily recalls Spring Awakening's time-warp schoolhouse (complete with neon strips) - except with more antlers.

This production's relative opulence does call into question something else about the show: its full title. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version reads the front of the program, but except for the handheld microphones, this is a fully-staged and -realized production. Could the subtitle be yet another goof on Jackson, one final irony crowning a show full of them that's about a president whom they ruled and haunted? Perhaps. Regardless, Timbers and Friedman more than justify their portrayal of Jackson as his century's individualist rock star, and have given him enough pain to wail about - and cause - to make him equally at home in 2009.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Through May 24
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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