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Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Benjamin Walker and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Suspension of disbelief is de rigueur in the theatre, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which has just opened at The Public Theater's Newman Theater, requires more than most. While watching this show by Alex Timbers (book and direction) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), you must force yourself to accept:

* That a United States president could be treated as a rock star.

* That Americans could elect one that rides into the White House on a wave of populism, and reveals himself a passionate partisan as soon as he arrives in the Oval Office.

* That said president, despite claiming he's working on behalf of the American people, would knowingly work against their best interests in favor of a conception of the world colored more by his closed-environment upbringing than by reality.

* That said president would pass laws that - intentionally or otherwise - threaten large groups of people while claiming they are instead for the betterment of all.

Hard enough for you? The real challenge, however, is trying to believe the conventional wisdom that the musical theatre is dead given how insinuating, energized, and energizing this 90-minute bumper car ride into 19th-century politics is. If you're dying for something traditional, you're better off at the likes of Yank! or The Scottsboro Boys. But if you want the best new musical of the season, get in line at The Public.

If you saw it last spring, when it premiered a few yards away as part of the Public LAB series, you may be disappointed if you want to see how it's changed. There are a few new cast members, some tightening and rewriting, and the expected growth in key performances. But large-scale alterations of the material simply have not happened - because they didn't need to.

What's noticeably different this time around - if beyond the writers' control - is the climate in which the show is being presented. A year further away from Spring Awakening and Passing Strange, to which in style this show bears more than a glancing resemblance, it's easier to see the show as less a comment on them than on us and the tidal changes we effect. And that has revealed many fascinating new aspects to this already rich (and misunderstood) story.

The titular president, America's seventh (played with perpetual-motion audacity by Benjamin Walker), now seems even more like an idealist-cum-ideologue, as much a victim of his own publicity as a vessel for the hopes and aspirations of the people who launched him in office. His heavy-handed methods of coping with everything, from his family to the economy to the infamous "Indian question," may be attributable to malice or inexperience, at your discretion. But his iron-willed forcefulness and the emotionalism he wears so clearly on his sleeve do not let you face him on anything but his terms.

This smartly provides the oh-so-cozy entry point into the evening's prevailing conceit: that soul-wringing emo was in vogue long before it had a name. When Jackson struts downstage in a clingy white shirt and "tight, tight jeans" to wail in blaring song "Why wouldn't you / Ever go out with me in school?", or reveals in considering how the Indians affected his own life "I wish that you were dead / So that I / Could paint your face a different color," the juxtaposition is not a joke, but a strike at the ways we perceive our legends - and, even more, the ways they perceive themselves.

This is made literal by an onstage historian (played, in a wheelchair, by the hilarious Colleen Werthmann), who narrates some of our look into Jackson's on-the-fringes childhood and public and military service, but it doesn't need to be. Jackson's own actions bucking the establishment - he was the first president who wasn't also a Founding Father, he formed the Democratic Party in response to in-bred Washington strategizing - are effectively immaterial: He's merely a stand-in for anyone in whom we're willing to trust to solve our problems more than we're willing to hunker down and take care of business ourselves.

Even so, the show is never preachy and never less than exhilarating, whether focusing on various people's odd tendencies to get shot at the most inopportune times or the mechanics of backroom deal-making. Within the texture of Timbers's production, which has been designed by Donyale Werle (sets), Emily Rebholz (costumes), and Justin Townsend (lights) as a stream-of-consciousness Victorian problem play staged in a 2010 lodge hall, there are no accidents, no incongruities. Everything contributes to a sense of permanent continuity, the notion that the past, present, and future are linked within the paralysis - and, usually, downright stupidity - of human existence.

Friedman's score is this idea's natural expression. It progresses from the angry cries of the opening number "Populism, Yea, Yea!" to wistful closing lyrics recalling "endless fields and cities" and "ballgames in the dusk" that are replaced with "all our dreams of the future" - with the obligatory stop at "Why don't you just shoot me in the Head / ‘Cause you know I'd be better off dead" along the way. Yet the songs never strain for relevance or coherence the way they frequently do in Spring Awakening and most shows of its ilk.

Timbers's careful crafting of the story is crucial to the show's success, but Walker's performance is even more central. Blending superstar looks and a better-than-pop-average voice with the perfectly blended comic-dramatic timing of Leslie Nielsen, Walker is a captivating embodiment of exactly what Jackson represented, or rather wanted to: everything to all people. He rants, rages, whines, and implodes with absolute swaggering authority, but because he never relinquishes his adolescent, arrogant self-importance, nothing is ever less than genuinely felt.

The other performers all have less to do, but standouts include Maria Elena Ramirez as Jackson's wife and Jeff Hiller as a mentally defective John Quincy Adams, who represent opposing poles of the show's serious-comic spectrum. That it's not always as easy to tell what's supposed to be funny and what isn't is one of the show's crowning strengths. After all, most jokes don't keep fresh beyond their initial telling - time always has the last laugh. As one character explains to Jackson when he's confronted with the long-lasting implications of his actions, "You can't shoot history in the neck." Maybe not. But Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson thrillingly shows how plucky, persistent, foolhardy Americans will never stop trying to do exactly that.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Through April 25
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater