A new musical about a presidential candidate with roots in Tennessee who finds that he's lost an election despite having won the popular vote opened at the Public over the weekend. No, it's not a musical about Al Gore, but rather the nation's seventh commander-in-chief, Andrew Jackson. As you might guess from the show's title, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version is no historical drama. Instead, the tuner, with book and direction by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics from Michael Friedman, is as fresh as today's headlines as it delves into Jackson's life and legacy.
The piece, a co-presentation with California's Center Theatre Group and New York's adventurous and iconoclastic Les Freres Corbusier, unfurls within the confines of an environment that looks like an East Village rocker club that's been decorated with an eye toward the rustic 19th century (scenic design by Donyale Werle). The dichotomy of the visuals beautifully fits the show's duality which relates history with a swirl of rock music and which continually exposes the contemporary parallels between Jackson's time and our own. Emily Rebholz's costumes similarly reflect this bifurcation of periods. Early on, the indefatigable cast sport items that invoke the period, but in the way in which children's cowboys and Indians costumes do. After Jackson has reached the White House (on his second time out), they wear what might be best described as downtown monochrome chic.
It's wicked fun all the way around, not only in its visuals, but in its tone. When Jackson (played by the charismatic and powerhouse singer Benjamin Walker) first meets Rachel (an appealing Maria Elena Ramirez), a married woman who will later become his wife, the creators mercilessly tweak another rock tuner, Spring Awakening. The couple's song may be a tortured ballad that brings to mind Duncan Sheik's work, but as they sing, they bleed themselves (an historically accurate fact), wailing "It's not blood/It's a metaphor for love./These aren't veins,/It's just the beating of my heart." Later, as Jackson strong-arms Native Americans into signing peace treaties that cede vast amounts of land, the female chorus delivers a marvelously wry riff on the children's song "Ten Little Indians."
Once Jackson's made it to DC, where insiders like James Monroe (Ben Steinfeld), Henry Clay (Bryce Pinkham) and Martin Van Buren (the hysterical Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) are played as ruff-collared fops, rock star-like Jackson attempts to have the citizenry who traipse through the Oval Office help him decide important matters of state, only to find that they're all too willing to leave the hard work to him – after all that what they've elected him for, right? Ultimately, the cheerleaders – literally they're carrying pom-poms – tire of his indecision and wander off to the Capitol because they can play Guitar Hero there.
It's all silly fun that proves infectious – sort of like a Mad Magazine cartoon that' sprung to life with electric rock. Deep insight into the country's ills of the time or of our own never truly emerges in "Bloody" and that's really all right because this light-hearted look at some dark historical themes feels as if it very well might be a cult-hit in the making.
--- Andy Propst
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 2 and 8pm; and Sunday at 2 and 7pm. Tickets are $10.00 and can be purchased by calling 212-867-7555 or by visiting www.PublicTheater.org.