Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theater Review: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Location: The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Public Theater site

Starring: Benjamin Walker, Maria Elena Ramirez, Colleen Werthmann, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Jeff Hiller, Michael Crane, Michael Dunn, Greg Hildreth, Ben Steinfeld

My Review: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an emo rock musical that offers a satirical look at our controversial seventh President, who is played as a perpetually fame-hungry and petulant 20-something wearing tight jeans and dark eyeliner. And that one-sentence description is all you really need to determine whether or not this show is your cup of tea.

I thoroughly enjoyed BBAJ (as it will henceforth be called). When first entering the theater I knew I was about to see something truly bizarre and totally new. The entire room (stage and audience) is covered in plastic chandeliers and strings of Christmas lights that glow red, with Presidential portraits hanging askew on the walls, and baroque-style tapestries and furniture onstage. It’s like walking into a cross between a former President’s country estate and Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s lab from Rocky Horror. Then the cast stomps onstage—as angry, pale, and overly made up as any real emo band should be—and opens the show with the rousing anthem, “Populism, Yea, Yea!” And then they’re off and running for the next 90 minutes.

Throughout that hour and a half we’re given a condensed look at Jackson’s life, starting with his early years as a frontiersman in Tennessee, to his marriage to an already married woman, to his unsuccessful first run for President, to his eventual win. And during his journey we learn about all the people Jackson hates. Which is, like, everyone. Played by Benjamin Walker as the ultimate angst-ridden post-collegiate, Jackson rails against the British, the Spanish, the elitist government in Washington, and those who he hates worst of all, the Indians (as they are referred to in the show, so don't get on me for being un-PC). He ultimately decides to market himself as a President for the people—as he forms the newly-created Democrat party—just as long as those people are just like him.

It’s a testament to how good a show BBAJ is that while primarily focusing on the most atrocious aspects of Jackson’s life, it’s pretty damn funny. It poses the question of whether Jackson was a visionary or an “American Hitler,” but it seems pretty clear which side the BBAJ creators would fall on. But even as he commits various crimes against humanity, such as the forceful (and often violent) removal of various Indian tribes, every act is played so over the top, but with such angry conviction, it’s like watching a misguided child throwing a theatrical temper-tantrum. Jackson isn’t just mad, he’s SO MAD! Jackson will not be IGNORED! Jackson wants what he wants, and he wants it NOW!

Helping to create this hilarious satire is the emo rock score that runs throughout BBAJ. Every song is loud and angry and loud and tortured and maybe not completely coherent or actually good…but it’s loud, dammit! Which means it means something, man! Not being overly familiar with this particular genre of music, I don’t know if all emo music is as over-the-top as BBAJ’s is, or if it’s been exaggerated for comedic effect. But in either case, it’s the perfect sound to reinforce just how frustrated and tormented poor, poor Andrew Jackson is (like when he sings about how “life sucks, and my life sucks in particular”).

Some time during the latter half of the show, BBAJ loses some of its steam and comes into a rather slow ending. Coincidentally (or not), this slowdown occurs once Jackson finally wins the Presidency, which turns out to be a bit of an indecisive letdown after the frantic campaign trail he ran to get there. The fact that this mirrors our most recent Presidential election could be a fluke, or maybe it’s a shrewd comment on how much we as a country haven’t really changed over the past 170 years. Which is enough to make anyone as angry and frustrated as Andrew Jackson.

Bottom Line: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a nearly completed work in progress. Having already been tweaked from its premiere in LA in 2008, it’s continuously being polished and tightened as it aims to make the jump from Off-Broadway to Broadway. With a few more songs and a final act that keeps up with the pace of the rest of the show, it should be ready for the move uptown, and able to appeal to audiences who have had enough of jukebox musicals and repurposed Hollywood fare. I just hope that the potential transition to a bigger, brighter theater doesn’t make BBAJ any less demented. Because that would really suck. In particular.

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