“Bloody” my English grandmother used to tell my mother was a very, very bad word back in the Olde Country…on the Other Side…which in her case meant Liverpool…
But Bloody in the case of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” the new VERY unusual, VERY original musical just transferred to Broadway from a VERY long, successful run at the Public Theater, is just plain Bloody Wonderful!
I had just had very severe and unexpected Oral Surgery(don’t ask!) and I couldn’t believe I was out and about and going to see this musical extravaganza, with “extra” being the two most active syllables…which I had seen the first time around and not liked at all.
What was I doing back there? Well, Anthony Del Col of “Kill Shakespeare” fame wanted to see it. He and Conor McCreery were in town for their launch of their graphic novel of “KS” which I really wanted to attend, but Oscar called, in the guise of the Nominee Party for the Gotham Awards, and I HAD to attend that at exactly the same hours as the “KS” launch party in the Village at the Chair and Maiden art gallery.
Well, an Oscarologist and TV personality can’t be in two places at the same time, so I missed it, and got tickets to “Bloody, Bloody…” instead because I felt so bad that I missed their launch. And then Anthony tells me he’s in Philadelphia for a couple of days! But I had already secured the tickets for last night, so I had to go.
So there I was at BBAJ and reeling from what seemed like HOURS of oral surgery and guess what? I just loved it second around! Talk about the transformative power of art! The show just LIFTED me into its’ own wild realm and I was as spell-bound by BBAJ as his contemporary voting base was said to be.
Why? What was “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” doing to me?
Well, I guess I wanted to maintain an open mind about it this time. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, as once again my critical colleagues raved and raved. I wanted to go in this time, and accept it on its’ own wacked-out terms, and this time it was pure theatrical enjoyment! I couldn’t believe it!
How had it changed? Well, the big Broadway theatre it was now in, the Bernard Jacobs’, was JUST the RIIIIIIGht size for this outsized rock musical and it’s larger than life performances,. especially Benjamin Walker’s unbelievable, star-making turn as Andrew Jackson himself.
And before the music had just seemed toooooo loud. Now it seemed so catchy and fine, I immediately wanted a cast album! I guess a better sound system was put in place for Broadway. It seemed even, dare I say, at times, melodious?
This show is beyond quirky, and I guess I was offended by the opening scene of a middle-aged woman with glasses, a traditional historian, who narrates the first part of the show, in a motorized wheel-chair. To laugh at someone’s disability like this I thought was just distasteful.
But now, in the hands of expert comedienne Kristine Neilson (who bares a startling resemblance Tony Winner Julie White!) she was, of course, hilarious and plucky and determined, to power-scoot her way into center stage, even if she did bump into everything in her path, and set just the right tone for all of the historical ridiculousness to follow. She then gets shot in the neck with an invisible arrow! So much for traditional history, BBAJ is saying. History is gonna get it in the neck from BBAJ.
You see, the show’s premise is that we really don’t know ANYthing about Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, who was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and who, I was taught in grade school like everybody else in this country, was one of our greatest presidents. After all, he’s on the $20 bill!
Well, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is here to tell you something quite, quite different. It’s here not to just deconstruct history, but to destroy it altogether, and in the end, it is really shockingly all about race. And how Andrew Jackson was responsible for the genocide of the American Indians. And that he, in the conclusion the show draws, was “an American Hitler.”
And it seems irrefutable that he was, in the ways the history in BBAJ is presented to us.
And yes, also, Andrew Jackson was a lot of other things, too. Charismatic, “a rock star president”. He was extremely popular. He claims to be “The People’s President” and someone who stands for the rights of those “in the West” and against “The effete politicians from the NorthEast.” The song is “Populism, Yeah! Yeah!”
And he totes his many guns and kills as many Indians as he possibly can, and Spaniards, too, with great gusto. (Is this beginning to sound like a modern politico? Yes, I shuddered, it does. The first time I saw it, I thought it was about Bush. Now it seems to be a metaphor for S. Palin!)
This show worked this time around on so many levels I can barely list them all. It was first and foremost a rollicking good entertainment. And as performed by the stupendous young cast, it ROCKED! Like a good rock musical should.
Andrew Jackson, or “Sexypants” as the ads proclaim him, was incredibly embodied in a star-turn of a performance by newcomer Benjamin Walker. The tall, dark and handsome Walker can sing and dance and act with the best of them, and is clearly on his way to a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a musical, if not the actual Tony itself! The six-foot-plus Walker STRIDES around the Bernard Jacobs’s stage like he owned Broadway and he right now, he certainly does.
I don’t know what this disjointed panalopy of warring theatrical genres would do without him grounding all of the historical contradictions that BBAJ espouses. It needs a monumental, heroic, ballsy hero to embody the charisma that they say the original AJ had. And Benjamin Walker has charisma to spare. His performance is fearless, both physically and vocally. Written and directed by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the role of Andrew Jackson requires an actor who seems to have superpowers. And Benjamin Walker is Superman personified. As he swaggers and struts his way through number after number that would cripple an ordinary human, I hear Hollywood Calling! Right about NOW!
This kind of matinee idol/hero/hunk won’t be long for Broadway, I fear. So catch him now while he’s still hot and boiling on Broadway. To say that he raises the temperature in the red-Christmas-light-bedecked theater is an understatement. He blows the roof off the place! Only RARELY do you see a powerful performance like this live and on stage on Bway. It’s a theatrical rarity.
And the casting in the supporting roles is equally exciting.
Hispanic actress Maria-Elena Ramirez as his devoted wife and fellow-blood-letter(Yes, they do it, and for fun and for romance) Rachel does a VERY sly imitation of all the white women cliches that she has probably never been asked to play in her professional lifetime. In an inspired piece of non-traditional casting, wily director/writer Timbers is using Ms.Ramirez’ ethnicity as a comment on the race problems Jackson was constantly confronting in early 19th century America. His love for Rachel is perhaps the only redeeming feature in Jackson. AND that he adopts a Native American Indian child and names him Lyncoya. Did Jackson REALLY do this in real life? Or is this just another one of Mr. Timbers’ wry historical conceits? In any case, Jackson, whom the play claims watched his parents be killed by Indians, can’t escpae this question, even in his bedroom.
When Ms. Ramirez, whose Rachel dies towards the end of the evening, also ends up leading the tableaux of American Indians who Jackson is sending on a death march westward, just as the Nazis did to the Jews in WWII, well, the parallels and the power of that juxtaposition of Ms. Ramirez and the guilt-stricken Jackson speaks volumes.
Stealing the show out from underneath everyone is another NYU Grad actor(as is Ms. Ramirez), Lucas Near-VerBrugghe as the super-effeminate Martin Van Buren. Having seen many, many memorable performances of his in an incredibly wide variety of roles, while he was still a graduate student, I was not surprised but only delighted to see him come to, well, fruition as a pink-fuffled shirt President who can’t stop eating twinkies as he ogles the super-hunky Walker.
He shakes so much with sheer delight everytime he’s near his American Idol, Jackson, that I thought he was going to vibrate himself to death. But then, as the play darkens towards its’ end and Rachel dies and everybody seems to have deserted Jackson, Near-Verbrugge’s dedication, and dare I say it? Love, for his falling hero, takes his performance out of the stereotypical and into the sublime.
Lucas Near-Verbrugge. VER-BRU-GAH. Learn to pronounce it, because like Benjamin Walker, you’re going to be hearing from him and often, as their stars rise with the blazing success of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.”