Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jacksonian Emo-cracy


Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Written and directed by Alex Timbers

Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman

Starring River Aguirre, James Barry, Michael Crane, Michael Dunn, Greg Hildreth, Jeff Hiller, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Maria Elena Ramirez, Kate Cullen Roberts, Ben Steinfeld, Benjamin Walker, Colleen Werthmann, Emily Young

March 23-May 9, 2010

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

A musical about our seventh president Andrew Jackson as if he was a rock star might be audacious but certainly not original: no less a luminary than Jesus was turned into a rockin’ savior 40 years ago in Jesus Christ Superstar. But if Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson doesn’t earn points for originality, it sure does for chutzpah.

From the opening power chords of “Populism, Yea Yea,” Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a shrewdly silly rewrite of American history. Presenting Jackson in the context of a Facebook-era media icon, it makes some obvious but pertinent assumptions about our country, showing how star power and appeals to populism and patriotism can work their magic, whether it’s the 19th or 21st century.

In its unabashedly goofball comic interludes, winking performances, deliberate anachronisms (Martin van Buren eats Twinkies) and hard-charging if generic music, the ragtag nature of the show is part of its appeal. It’s like watching an especially funny and on-target Saturday Night Live skit, for those who can remember that far back. Jackson’s parents—among others—are killed by arrows, a decent running gag even reprised during the curtain call. And if the show flirts with camp at times—especially in Jeff Hiller’s mugging as John Quincy Adams—that too is part of its “something for everyone” populist approach.

Musically, with basic rock tunes belted out by an energetic cast, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson anticipates Green Day’s American Idiot, the other big spring musical that deals with the political through the prism of the personal. Even our headliner, Benjamin Walker, plays President Jackson as an emo/punk star, with eye makeup and a swagger reminiscent of Green Day’s lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong. Coincidence? Maybe, but Walker is also an excellent actor and electric performer who plausibly transforms Jackson—whom history books and the $20 bill have forever frozen as a stuffy, white-haired coot—into a charismatic, feverishly patriotic politician who rocked the White House for two eventful terms.

Pouring on the silliness (Jackson says “bro,” among other current slang), writer-director Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman gleefully throw all caution to the wind, and their enjoyment becomes ours. And there may even be a history lesson in there somewhere amid the din of the churning guitars, bass and drums.

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