With their bloody-good “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” director-librettist Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman have woven a scathing and topical satire on matters patriotic and political, and they’ve done it with the sound of emo rock, which might be hard to swallow for some traditional theatergoers. Downtown hit could prove a tough sell in a Broadway house, but the show’s commercial producers have demonstrated keen marketing in the past, with diverse fare including “Spring Awakening” and “August: Osage County.” Word of mouth will loom large with this one.
Taking our seventh president — the guy on the 20-dollar bill — from the pages of history and reading through the whitewashed lines, Timbers and Friedman have drawn a people’s hero who thumbs his nose (and other more graphic parts) at the powers that be. Jackson’s America-first, take-no-prisoners rabble-rousing took him all the way to the White House, and has earned him a place of honor on the list of great American heroes, despite (or perhaps in recognition of) his having all but wiped out what we nowadays refer to as Native Americans.
Emo is something of an offshoot of hardcore rock with a mix of punk, marked by overwrought lyrics often speaking of teen angst. Friedman, of the avant garde group the Civilians, immediately jumps on this in his opening number; this early-1800s historical fantasy begins with the line, “Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?”
The score is different from almost anything heard on Broadway, and in contrast to current rock musicals, the decibel level is manageable (which might be why we can understand the lyrics). This is due in part to the small band, with conductor Justin Levine on piano and guitar along with a second guitarist and a well-worked drummer. Some of the actors occasionally pick up a guitar as well, while Levine gets to sing one of the score’s finest songs, “Second Nature.”
Timbers, whose downtown group Les Freres Corbusier is known for rude entertainments like “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” laces his book and direction with wild and zany humor. It’s proven prescient, as well: Despite strong parallels to the Tea Party movement and its present-day candidates, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” premiered in Los Angeles in January 2008, before the Tea Party was birthed.
Other than a handful of cast replacements and ongoing script updates (there’s even a line about Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell’s witchcraft dabbles), the show seems pretty much as it was in its spring appearance Off Broadway at the Public Theater, which serves as lead producer, along with Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel.
The result of all this is a production that soars along like a carnival ride. Timbers is abetted by scenic designer Donyale Werle, who has tricked out the wide stage of the Jacobs — and the entire auditorium, too — with what look to be tag-sale discards from the Smithsonian attic. Justin Townsend, too, contributes with a lighting scheme that ties stage and auditorium together with countless chandeliers and long, colored neon strips.
Benjamin Walker, in a star-making performance, leads the cast of 14. Looking and acting totally unlike how Andrew Jackson must have looked and acted, he is at once a handsome leading man and a sulking child in the nursery. The actors who stand out are those with the most outlandish comic material: Ben Steinfeld (as James Monroe), Jeff Hiller (as a back-country cobbler and John Quincy Adams), Kristine Nielsen (as the Storyteller), and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (as Martin van Buren, stuffing anachronistic Twinkies in his mouth).
Call it provocative anarchy, a 21st-century equivalent to the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.” At one point, van Buren, Jackson’s veep and successor in the Oval Office, complains that Andrew is being “laissez-unfair.” The authors are inarguably and entertainingly laissez-unfair to the Founding Fathers, tea-bagging Republicans, right-wing populists, handicapped narrators in motorized wheelchairs wearing sweaters with dancing bears, Native Americans, and just about whatever targets dart past their flyswatters.
Songs: “Populism, Yea, Yea!” “I’m Not that Guy,” “Illness as Metaphor,” “I’m So That Guy,” “Ten Little Indians,” “The Corrupt Bargain,” “Rock Star,” “The Great Compromise,” “Public Life,” “Crisis Averted,” “The Saddest Song,” “Second Nature,” “Hunters of Kentucky”