Kirk Douglas Theatre / Los Angeles
On through 17 February 2008
I first saw “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” as a workshop in 2006 at the Williamstown Theater Festival. It was presented at midnight, as a I recall, by the apprentice company in a church on the beautiful campus in the Berkshires. The show was a fast, energetic collection of songs that loosely told the story of Andrew Jackson, one of the most controversial and excitable presidents in U.S. history. Now, the Center Theatre Group here in L.A., along with The Public Theater has given us the world premiere, directed by its book writer, Alex Timbers. With music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the show is now fleshed-out, clocking in at just under two hours (sans intermission). Stylistically reminiscent of “Spring Awakening,” Andrew Jackson drops the F-bomb a lot as he rocks out, and quite often stomps his feet. As a Gen-Y history lesson, this is a musical which reminds us that presidential angst and temper tantrums that end in bloodshed are not so much modern concepts. In order for this to be pulled off, you need a vivacious cast, a memorable score that makes you want the CD, and some honest-to-goodness historical tidbits (even if they are skewed to the MTV market).
As Jackson, Benjamin Walker is spot-on. He has the chops to go from charming to blood-thirsty to whiny as the style of the show dictates, often within just a couple of beats. The boys that support him are pretty fantastic as well, in particular the snicker-worthy antics of Brian Hostenske as the flamboyant Van Buren. The women, I must say…not-so-much. Part of the trouble is that the show’s best material is for the boys, and as they are the main characters, rightly so. The ladies of this production do not often have the chance to shine, and aren’t quite up to the task when they do. I was looking for a Kelly Clarkson to emerge from the lot, but perhaps that was expecting a bit too much, rock musical or not. The show has some great songs, but I wasn’t humming any of them on my way out to the parking lot (except maybe “Ten Little Indians” which I actually remember from the WTF workshop). And then there is the conundrum of balancing a snarky yet energetic yet historically accurate biography of a U.S. president into a two-hour show. Amazingly enough, all of these elements do, in fact, gel together for the most part. We see Jackson’s boyhood, his rise up the military ranks, his campaign and his election to the White House. It all ends in a cool rock concert scene where the audience is (literally) blinded by the light and loving it. You go to grab your program and applaud the show…except that it keeps going for another eight scenes or so. This third act shows Jackson’s presidential days and the struggle to solve the problem of the displaced American Indians. If you’re really into completing the history lesson, the third act is great, but in terms of this show it just doesn’t fly. Act III is of a completely different tone, very book-heavy, and wholly changes the audience’s impression as they exit the theatre. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” has the potential to be the next “it” rock musical, but needs to have another pass or two before they can open the gift shop. Major kudos to lighting designer, Jeff Crioter, set designer, Robert Brill, and the writers who have brought it so far so quickly. This is a show that’s well on its way, but not quite ready to be popping open the Moet just yet.