Monday, October 25, 2010

REVIEW: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Review of the October 23 matinee performance. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, New York City. Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission. Starring Benjamin Walker. Book by Alex Timbers, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Choreography by Danny Medford, Directed by Alex Timbers. NOTE: This production contains adult language, situations and violent images.

Move over, American Idiot, there is a new bad boy rock 'n' roll show on Broadway, and his guns are ablaze and his wit is dagger sharp.  And his emotional outbursts may be as self-centered as yours, but his have deadly consequences on a national scale.  His name is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and he has taken the rock, self-reverential and blistering satirical musical to a whole new level.  If you were wondering how the groundwork laid by such shows as Urinetown: The Musical and the aforementioned American Idiot would progress into the next generation of American musicals, you need only get yourself to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and find out what all the fuss is about.

Finally, there is a show that no one can say "they didn't carry it out as far as they could," or "they sold out and went commercial," or "it's it too bad they compromised."  No, BBAJ is evidence that you can still be all out with your creativity, that you can be smart and still be fun, and that there is an audience for unlikely subjects as long as you stick to your point of view and you remember that musicals are first and foremost a form of entertainment.  As such, this show is the almost perfect blend of what I love about musicals.  It ignites all of my senses, it makes me think, it makes me feel and it sticks with me long after exiting the theatre. 

Of course, when you do go all out, you are sure to alienate some people (have you read the message boards?), and are sure to make fanatics out of others.  You are bound to insult some and cause others to roll their eyes in disgust.  Long before Andrew Jackson was even an idea (the writers might not have even been alive yet or were very small boys if they were) there was another show that engendered such extreme reactions from its audiences and the theatre world in general.  That little show was Sweeney Todd, and while I am not even remotely suggesting that Andrew is the masterpiece that Sweeney is, there is no denying that they are remarkably similar, right down to the blood stained costumes and sensory overload provided by their perspective productions. 

What perhaps gives Andrew Jackson the edge on edgy is that it is about a real person.  Sweeney is about a legendary figure of the penny dreadful tradition in England, and possibly a mass murderer or two that took their cue from the legend of the killer barber.  On the other hand, Andrew Jackson, even considering how skewed and purposely fictionalized his history is depicted here, is about a real leader, and a real man who was responsible for a mass genocide within our borders.  The ramifications of his actions remain with us to this day.  And while he certainly doesn't remain in our thoughts these days like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln are, Jackson represents a dark, if forgotten, period in American history.

Scarier still is the fact that a lot of his ways and political views have remained in the public political consciousness.  Book writer/director Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman have gone to great lengths and hit us repeatedly over the head with the parallels between the early 19th Century politics of Jackson and every president and the rest of our government in the late 20th Century and into the 21st.  There are plenty of digs about a leadership who throws a temper tantrum when he doesn't get his way.  There are plenty of moments about a president elected by a groundswell of support rallied during a campaign, only to see it all but forgotten when tough decisions, an unsupportive cabinet and an equally immature, self-centered Congress make great campaign promises impossible to keep.  I could go on about actions/policies, etc. that fly in the face of our Constitution, and how ego and a need for admiration over leadership has throughout history has nearly brought this country to its knees.  Let's just summarize by saying that Andrew Jackson as portrayed here was the first of a long line of American presidents to make more of a mess than even he ever dreamed possible.

Which brings me to the show itself.  A lot of what makes this show work is that its subject is a dynamic, charismatic and dramatic central figure.  The show certainly plays up to the fact that Jackson would perfectly fit into today's society.  He was popular, loved to be in a scandal, and he was a completely a self-made celebrity (take that Paris Hilton!).  Were he alive today, he'd be a media mega-star; a staple on shows like The View, the Fox News Channel and fodder for every other news outlet from The New York Times to CNN.  He would keep Perez and TMZ in business.  Everyone involved in the stage production is blissfully on the same page and understands this very well.  The show is full of sound bites (literally and figuratively), and portrays Jackson as a rock star, a bad boy and a scandal ridden media whore.  And the show hits everyone of these buttons with glee and gusto, including mock documentary narration, a news brief commentator, and an entourage of cheerleaders, backstabbing associates and an ass-kissing assistant.  Fittingly, that "assistant," Martin Van Buren, ends up being the next president.

And since everyone is on that same page, it makes sense that the self-proclaimed "emo rock musical" fires on all cylinders - an edgy rock sound, overly emotional with repetitive and bizarre lyrics, the trademark over enunciation of words - my favorite being the words "in particular" repeated ad nauseum as "ian perticulyur" - and of course, the profanity laden lyrics that express both sexuality and anger in the same chorus. (I will not debate the authenticity of the score to the genre, but it certainly sends up what I do know about emo rock and its practitioners.)  Highlights of the score include the Schoolhouse Rock-on-Ritalin-liquor-and-pot influenced "Populism, Yea, Yea!", the ready for radio "Rock Star", the indie station-esque "The Saddest Song", and the most scathing and catchy number in the show, "Ten Little Indians."  The latter song sums up perfectly what my senses were like during the entire 90 minute show: it was clever for my ears and interesting for my brain, the sentiment made my blood boil, and the clever delivery (by outstanding ensemble member Emily Young) made the theatre lover in me tingle.  The score alone - played, mind you, by but three musicians, Justin Levine, Charlie Rosen and Kevin Garcia and supplemented on occasion by cast members - gave me more than my money's worth.

The majority of the ensemble plays multiple roles, and every single one of them is very clearly defined and remarkably different, a testament to the depth of talent that they posses.  Add to that that they all have perfect comic timing and can play satire as well as anyone in the heyday of Saturday Night Live, as well as cutting modern commentary and surprisingly deep, honest moments of clarity.  They are asked to do an awful lot in 90 short minutes, and are easily the best ensemble on the Broadway stage today.  Particularly outstanding are the gentlemen who play other real life political figures: Darren Goldstein (who plays the arrogant, self-absorbed Calhoun with suave devilishness), Jeff Hiller (a humorously whiny, self-absorbed John Quincy Adams), Ben Steinfeld (a wonderfully confused Monroe), Bryce Pinkham (a laugh out loud riot of drool, facial contortions and an equally bug-eyed weasel), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (a fabulously effete Van Buren with a...Twinkie fettish...).  Also quite good, both in a funny, satiric way, but balanced with some surprisingly real moments of serious depth is Maria Elena Ramirez as Jackson's wife, Rachel.  Ms. Ramirez gets to be part of most of the show's more somber moments and she plays them very well.  In fact, her scenes with Andrew Jackson that are more serious and sincere are what balances out the show and makes the funny funnier instead of tedious.  She deserves a lot of credit for that. 

Esthetically, the designers have collaborated brilliantly with the concept created by Mr. Timbers and Mr. Friedman. Now I did not see the show off-Broadway, but if the set on the Broadway stage is any indication of how it was at the Public, designer Donyale Werle did his best to recreate the tight closeness of what had to be a smaller playing space previously.  I am pretty sure that the set only takes up the front half of the stage, if that, and every inch of the playing space is crammed with items that give the place the feel of a hunting lodge, a museum attic and boy's clubhouse all at once.  Where the design probably got bigger was in extending every element of the stage out into the entire house area.  Not since Cats has a Broadway show felt so completely environmental.  Every inch of the walls and most of the ceiling space is covered with portraits of dead leaders, political bunting and other Americana, along with letters that spell out the show's initials, funky upside down chandeliers and the infamous stuffed horse that hangs upside down over the orchestra seats.  When you enter the theatre, it is completely bathed in red Christmas lights, and most of the hundreds of stage lights are gelled red as well.  In short, lighting designer Justin Townsend has made the audience complicit in Jackson's actions as we enter and leave the theatre blood red in color.  And, as early in the season as it is, I think I can safely predict that both he and Werle are well on their way to Tony nominations, if not wins, for their endlessly creative sets and lighting, alternately theatrical and rock concert-ish in feel and scope.  Sound designer Bart Fasbender similarly contributes to this free-for-all/heavily calculated entertainment as well, with perfectly timed gun shots, arrow shootings and a wide variety of sound effects, while costume designer Emily Rebholz manages to make the costumes as witty and modern/of the period as the rest of the show.  Particularly interesting is the costume design for various cast members during the scenes when Jackson is in the oval office, which are predominantly black and definitely of today.  Smartly, only Van Buren remains in period costume, and as we know he will be the next president, it serves as a subversive reminder that everything old will be new again.

As I said earlier, this is an almost perfectly executed, all out musical, but even when you go all out, you must be sure not to go too far.  While 99.9% of Timbers' direction and choreographer Danny Medford's staging is right on target in its frantic pace and deliberately sophomoric moments, there is one character that kind of feels shoe-horned in, and is the only one that comes close to being overkill or eye-roll inducing, and that is the pretentiously named Storyteller.  One gets the impression that the device was perhaps used more thoroughly in previous drafts, and exposition being what it has to be with such a foreign topic, maybe the authors felt there was no option but to keep it.  Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe she (a perfectly fine actress, Kristine Nielson, plays her) is meant to be just one more element of the send up.  But it is really the one thing in this bizarre circus that doesn't fit right.  And don't think for a moment that it is because she is portrayed as a handicapped person in an electric scooter.  Hell, that is the least offensive thing in a show that is equally offensive to Indians, slaves, Spaniards, gays, the rich, the poor and even cobblers.  It just isn't that funny or necessary, especially when other moments are later narrated by ensemble members seamlessly.

So what about the star of the show, Andrew Jackson himself?  Well, Hollywood's loss is definitely Broadway's gain, as Benjamin Walker tears up the stage as our seventh president.  He is cheeky, bombastic and literally sweats up a storm as he ages from a small boy to a petulant teen to an even more petulant adult.  Walker carefully lays out this progression so that it seems like a progression not a repetition.  There is a fine line between a one-note brat and a multi-faceted self-indulgent jackass of a man who acts like the child he once was.  Ben Walker doesn't just walk that fine line, he stomps right across it.  He embodies the entire notion of the show - that charisma, charm, bullying and not caring what the rules are can make you a star.  Andrew Jackson, at least according to this show, wrote the book on celebrity masquerading as substance - one that a myriad of today's stable of so-called stars follow (Paris, Snookie, and "The Situation" come right to mind).  What is so wonderful about Walker's genuinely star-making performance is that he is doing it the old-fashioned way: with blood, sweat and some remarkably well filled out jeans as the ad promises.  Sexypants indeed!  But best of all, he does so with the most important quality: genuine talent. 

It is sheer talent that got Timbers, Friedman, Walker and company to the big leagues.  And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a homegrown hit that should give Broadway fans something to cheer about for some time to come.


(Photos of the original Broadway cast by Joan Marcus.)

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