‘Bloody Andrew Jackson’ puts the pop in populism

By Mark Kennedy
New York (AP) October 2010

The first indication that things might get a little weird at “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is the sight before the show begins of a large trussed-up, stuffed horse dangling from the balcony.

It’s a sign that not much will be held sacred here – not traditional theater rules, not historical accuracy, not political correctness, and certainly not the seventh president of the United States.

“Life sucks and my life sucks in particular,” Andrew Jackson sings toward the beginning of this irreverent rock musical that’s drenched in sarcasm, camp, zaniness and silliness.

As for Jackson himself, he’s not exactly the stuffy guy we see on the $20 bill. Here, he’s a chiseled hunk (Benjamin Walker) who wears tight black pants, totes guns and has a fondness for Green Day-like eyeliner. He’s indeed “The man who put the man in Manifest Destiny.”

His life – from his youth massacring Native Americans in Tennessee to his capture of the White House in 1829 as a maverick – is ostensibly the narrative thread that informs Alex Timber’s book and Michael Friedman’s music and lyrics.

But what the show is really exploring is always current: elitism versus populism. Riding a wave of anger into power may work, the show seems to say, but then what? Governing is hard. Or, as Jackson as commander in chief sings: “With this country before you/That cannot be governed/You find yourself powerless/bloody and scarred.”

Jackson’s story is told in a series of vignettes and songs that veer from fratboy humor – girl-on-girl kissing, fist-bumping, ballet-dancing Indians – to slightly more sophisticated observations, such as the lines, “Direct democracy is lame” and “I’m sure Michel Foucault would have an opinion, but he hasn’t been born yet.”

There’s a school-marmish narrator (Kristine Nielsen), who appears in a motorized wheelchair wearing a truly horrible sweater with cuddly cats. She’s a history nerd who eagerly recites Jacksonian dates and context – until, that is, Jackson shoots her in the throat.

“I think I can take it from here,” he explains.

Though Walker has the look and strut of a star and a fine voice to boot, this is clearly not a heroic portrait. Old Hickory does get credit for leading a rebellion against the establishment but the show mostly displays Jackson’s flaws – the slaves, the genocidal side, his poor performance as a husband, the ego-mania and his weird enjoyment of ritual bloodletting.

The Washington insiders come off worse, including such luminaries as a Twinkie-eating Martin Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a weasel-wielding Henry Clay (Bryce Pinkham) and a foppish John Quincy Adams (Jeff Hiller). Has James Monroe ever been called a “douchebag” from a Broadway stage before? He has now.

The emo-inflected rock songs – standouts include “Populism Yea Yea,” “I’m Not That Guy” and a haunting reworking of the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians” – propel the action forward without leaving too much of an impression. Cher and the Spice Girls songs make cameos to hysteric effect.

Most of the 20 castmembers – the vast majority who are making their Broadway debuts – play multiple parts while a fantastic three-piece band keeps up a fierce beat. Timber, the book writer, is also the director, and keeps the action bubbling at a breakneck pace. The stage seems almost too small. The energy is high.

Scenic designer Donyale Werle has thrillingly turned the inside of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre into a reflection of the play itself: A bizarre mishmash of mounted animal heads, askew oil paintings of stern-looking old white men, multiple chandeliers, and miles of gathered burgundy cloth. It looks like an Old West bordello threw up.

Costumes by Emily Rebholz share that crazed theme: Cowboy boots, hoodies and jeans are mixed with ascots, dandy-like vests and Elizabethan ruffs. Modern sexy baby doll dresses are paired with petticoats and Indians get leather fringe jackets with a feather headdress.

The whole thing is just plain odd: This show walks a fine line between parody and sincerity, between mocking musicals and yet embracing them, between promoting stereotypes and yet laughing at them, between respect for history and having none at all, and between making fun of rock stars and yet producing one. It sometimes falters, yet never loses its swagger – unlike that hogtied horse dangling from the balcony.



Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson: The exhumation of a monster