Monday, February 11, 2008

review of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"

Sanguine Outlook

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson lures us in with dumbed-down history and then delivers a satirical sucker punch

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson upends American history texts, casting our seventh president as a rock star and pointing a middle finger of blame directly at the doofus readers of those textbooks: us.
Even at first glance, it’s an anachronistic play. Robert Brill’s set combines rough-timbered Western saloon with museum of natural history and the steel light trusses of arena rock. Groupies wear coonskin caps; TV talk show interrogators are dressed like riverboat gamblers.
Alex Timbers, directing this world premiere (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 17) from his own script, couples revisionist American history with apolitical emo, attempting to herd both the politically astute and the politically unwashed into the same satirical corral.
It’s misleading to call Bloody Bloody a musical; instead, in scenes ranging from Second City silliness to Swiftian rage, it’s a political satire peppered with songs.
In a series of comic skit-scenes with the lurid quality of a graphic novel, the satire of Timbers and of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman grows along with Jackson’s emergence from backwoodsman to populist president, slowly gathering allusions to our current pro-war president along the way,
As young Jackson, Benjamin Walker bestrides the stage like Ashton Kutcher, a self-confident airhead ready to proclaim empty ideas and not at all surprised to find others agreeing with him. He’s, like, you know, just totally pissed off at the British and the Spanish and those damn Injuns.
But it doesn’t work to treat Jackson as sometimes like George W. Bush and sometimes not. Like 43, 7 suspended liberties and fought a war against a terrorizing enemy. But unlike our current president, Jackson aligned himself with the common people (not just the wealthy) and evidently grew capable of self-analysis and remorse. (Jackson adopted an orphaned Indian child; faced with an Iraqi child in tatters, GWB would avert his eyes and walk away.)
Like Jackson himself, Bloody Bloody grows up over its duration. The first few times that Jackson (Benjamin Walker) tells the Spanish and his political enemies to fuck off, it’s refreshing: There’ll be no politicians’ bullshit from Old Hickory, nosiree. But after half an hour of it, it seems juvenile.
One risk of this show’s arena-rock and emo trappings (loud chords, blinding lights and the slitting of self-pitying wrists) is that some audience members will respond with whoo-hoohs of laughter at this bewigged fellow here and that atrocity over there until the sarcasm is spread scattershot over anyone and everything. The groupies who just want to have Jackson’s baby and the citizens in the street who couldn’t formulate an informed political opinion if it was handed to them — these mindless members of the American dumbocracy are mirrors of us, of the American public today. Timbers and Friedman want to plunge a knife of vicious satire straight into our hearts, but they sheathe it in deliberately hokey musical numbers (“Populism!” early on) and head-banging escapism.
The contrast seems likely to leave good-times theatergoers too far behind to grasp the show’s political anger.
Seldom have I gone from disliking a show so much in its first half-hour to admiring the political insights of its conclusion. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, like the man himself, grows up, leaving juvenile over-simplifications behind in favor of a willingness to accept self-blame. The whoo-hooh rock fans are missing half the point: BBAJ is bloody good and bloody sad.

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