When I first saw the new musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson during its well-received engagement at The Public Theater, the Wednesday evening audience didn't seem to be buying it. While I was certainly appreciating the snarky tone and smart parallels with our modern political scene, the sharp and energetic production was falling flat with the rest of the crowd. (Read my review of the Off Broadway Production.)
The one feature that I personally wasn't responding to was Michael Friedman's emo-rock score, which for me descended into an unremarkable and undifferentiated morass amid the rest of the smart goings-on.
Well, what a difference an audience makes. I recently took in the Broadway production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and am happy to report that I and the rest of the audience were having a grand old time en masse.
I still find the score to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson serviceable at best, but in truth the show's success lies in its libretto and direction by Alex Timbers. (Timbers is also directing the upcoming Broadway premiere of The Pee Wee Herman Show. I'm so excited, I can't tell you.) Much like Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson enjoys a remarkably united vision of direction, story, and performance, which coalesce into an entertaining package with surprising parallels to our modern political environment.
Of course, the show focuses on the eponymous Andrew Jackson, a politically polarizing figure who not only doubled the size of the United States and helped found the Democratic party, but also oversaw the systematic decimation of the Native American population. So, where's the modern resonance? Well, Jackson was also apparently a bit of a demagogue, deft at rousing the common man and woman into forceful political action with exhortations to "take this country back" and angry rhetoric against the "wealthy New England college fucks." (I'm thinking, however, that this latter remark is probably a fanciful product of Timbers' imagination rather than a direct quote from Congressional Quarterly.) Throw in some references to "maverick, egalitarian democracy" and the Faustian appeal of consolidated executive power, and what you essentially have is a chilling combination of the regrettable Tea Party movement and George W. Bush's political wet dream.
Also key to the show's effectiveness are the appealing cast members with a wicked and (nearly) unified approach to the sardonic material. Thankfully, the electrifying Benjamin Walker turned down a role in the upcoming X-Men movie prequel, and thus gets to repeat his dynamic portrayal of AJ himself. Walker is aided by a remarkable supporting cast, including Kristine Nielsen as the beleaguered narrator, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as a delightfully fey Martin Van Buren, and an alternately daffy and intense Bryce Pinkham as Henry Clay/Black Fox. The one note of discord in the overall cast unity was Darren Goldstein, a seemingly talented performer whose relatively realistic line readings seemed out of sync with the style of the show.
Although I appreciated Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson far more upon second viewing, the show's main liability remains its energy arc. The show starts with a burst of activity and at first keeps that dynamic level going forward full steam. But around the two-thirds mark, the show's energy takes a decided turn downward. This is perhaps a deliberate choice: Jackson's grand vision is starting to blur, and it becomes clear that his historic legacy will remain controversial and divided. Although the gravity of the events certainly call for a more deliberate tone, the effect is rather like a roller coaster that starts off exhilarating, but toward the end of the ride requires its passengers to get out and push the car to the finish.
Even so, anyone who cares about the dramatic and polemic possibilities of musical theater will want to catch Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. And while you're there, check out The Scottsboro Boys as well, which has lost none of its power to shock and move in its Broadway transfer. Check out my review of the Off-Broadway production, and look for my review of the Broadway version when the show opens next week.