Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version


Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Written and directed by Alex Timbers. The Public Theater. (CLOSED)

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson addresses the debate of the merits of our seventh president, but positive reviews show that critics find little to debate about the production. Critics enjoy its send-up of Spring Awakening, Alex Timber's streamlined history, Michael Friedman's emo score, and the cast, especially Benjamin Walker who they find particularly charismatic. The only fault critics find is that the show falls apart a little bit towards the end. Time Out New York's David Cote, on the other hand, thinks the last ten minutes are the brightest point in the show.

Talkin' Broadway A+
(Matthew Murray) Its target isn’t just still-controversial seventh President of the United States, but also Spring Awakening. Well, not just the Steven Sater-Duncan Sheik Tony winner, but shows like it. With (intentionally) amateurish acting, (intentionally) poorly- and non-plotted and flat-out disconnected songs, and an (intentionally) irreverent attitude toward subjects of abject seriousness, this absorbingly effective riff on emo narrative by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman is as much a comment on the ragged quality of this kind of storytelling as it is a story itself. And because of its intelligence, its wit, and the undercurrent of maturity that buoys its childishness, this is in no way the pandering, least-common-denominator evening it mocks every chance it gets. But there’s a more important fusion at work here than simply musical theatre and whine rock. Librettist-director Timbers is the artistic director of Les Freres Corbusier and Michael Friedman is the house composer of The Civilians, and the uniting of these two downtown titans on a project of this audacity is a match made in theatre utopia. Timbers’s knack for rampantly visionary entertainment and Friedman’s grip on pungent social commentary combine to make something deeper, richer, and hotter than either has previously devised alone, all within a searing context that commands your attention and demands your assent to its absurdities.

CurtainUp A+
(Jenny Sandman) Les Freres Corbusier is known for its irreverently clever productions, including an adaptation of Hedda Gabler with robots. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson carries on this spirit. The ensemble is one of the finest in New York right now, and they're all as happily hormonal and outré as Jackson himself. Look for finely caricatured performances of James Monroe (Ben Steinfeld), Henry Clay (Bryce Pinkham), Martin Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), John Quincy Adams (Jeff Hiller) and John Calhoun (Darren Goldstein). A delightfully cluttered set by Donyale Werle and extremely loud guitar (Justin Levine) and drums (Kevin Garcia) complete the party atmosphere. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is the most fun I've had at a play this year, and at $10, it's the best bargain in town. If only all our presidents could be as entertaining and good for our pocketbooks.

Theatermania A
(Brian Scott Lipton) Who knew Martin Van Buren (the hilarious Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) loved Twinkies? Or that the troubled Jackson (Benjamin Walker) once indulged in one of his ritual self-bleedings while Cher's "Song for the Lonely" played in the background. More realistically, who knew that Walker -- who gave distinctly earnest performances in the recent Broadway revivals of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Inherit the Wind -- posseses the kind of rock star charisma to rival Adam Lambert. (True, some people in Los Angeles -- where Walker starred in an earlier and considerably longer version of this show -- might have that knowledge.) Not only is the actor's striking and surprisingly deeply felt performance a revelation, Walker turns out to be the kind of anchor needed to keep the musical's excesses from becoming overwhelming.

AmericanTheaterWeb A
(Andy Propst) The piece, a co-presentation with California's Center Theatre Group and New York's adventurous and iconoclastic Les Freres Corbusier, unfurls within the confines of an environment that looks like an East Village rocker club that's been decorated with an eye toward the rustic 19th century (scenic design by Donyale Werle). The dichotomy of the visuals beautifully fits the show's duality which relates history with a swirl of rock music and which continually exposes the contemporary parallels between Jackson's time and our own. Emily Rebholz's costumes similarly reflect this bifurcation of periods. Early on, the indefatigable cast sport items that invoke the period, but in the way in which children's cowboys and Indians costumes do. After Jackson has reached the White House (on his second time out), they wear what might be best described as downtown monochrome chic.

Just Shows To Go You A
(Patrick Lee) As staged by Alex Timbers, it’s silly and smartypants at the same time. The show’s conceit has Jackson in strutting rock god drag which not only amusingly illustrates his celebrity and resonance with the people but also allows Benjamin Walker to rock out old school in his thoroughly winning breakout performance.

Backstage A-
(Adam R. Perlman) Writer-director Alex Timbers has a strong sense of theatrical economy, fast-forwarding and hitting the pause button at the right times. We see Jackson as a boy sandwiched between the carcasses of his dead parents (yup, Indians got 'em) and negotiating that age-old line between work and family... Michael Friedman's songs—sometimes seamlessly integrated, sometimes jumping out like pictures in a pop-up book—provide what the moment needs... Through the visual quotes and the semi-ironic Simpsons-style satire, something fairly rare emerges: a complex musical with a conflicted point of view. The creators have trouble choosing sides in the Jackson debate—populist hero or "American Hitler"?—and their attempt to treat their ambivalence honestly leads to a third act that lacks the breezy energy of what came before. I'm not sure the shift works, but it's nice to see a rise-and-fall story that isn't clichéd—the story of how the people came together behind one of their own, a man who defeated a corrupt political cabal that thought him unfit for the Oval Office, only to perhaps prove his critics correct.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) One of the great things about Timbers is that no matter how nuttily downtown his shows appear, they're held together by an old-fashioned sense of craft, starting with strong casting. Benjamin Walker, pink cheeks aglow under shaggy black curls, gives a great anchor performance. He's onstage almost the entire time, and carries the show with boundless energy. He has to: The entire thing unfurls at "Looney Tunes" speed, and with a similar sense of anarchic joy and cross-cultural mayhem. A scene in which Jackson and his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), indulge in some cutting is underscored by a tune incorporating Susan Sontag's "illness as metaphor" theory. (Why Friedman hasn't been on Broadway yet is befuddling.)

Variety A-
(Marilyn Stasio) Terrible things happen to the Storyteller, which is all to the good, since the smart subtext of the show has to do with narrative itself -- the process by which we perpetuate the legends we create. So while Jackson's life and career are rendered faithfully enough in broad outline, the information is refracted through multiple information sources, from the Storyteller lady and the tall-tale tellers in the no-name saloon to the CNN voices (of Lisa Joyce and others) breathlessly pumping up election night frenzy, and those screamers who conduct the vote count on "American Idol." The creatives are nothing if not democratic in their contempt for how we make, market and destroy our heroes. And in the end, it's the Storyteller who sticks the knife in the Jackson legend by reminding the president that, even today, scholars can't decide whether he was a great warrior and a true populist leader or a ruthless, land-grabbing imperialist and "a genocidal murderer" -- the "American Hitler" who displaced indigenous Indian tribes and wiped out the entire Cherokee Nation. The academic jury may still be out on that question, but down at the Public, this hot little show is putting on one hell of a wake for a fallen hero.

The New York Times A-
(Ben Brantley) Emo, for those of you who don’t download your songs, is a postpunk rock variant that wears its shattered heart on its tattered sleeve, throbbing with the narcissism, masochism and frustrated powerlessness that come with being a teenager. The closest Broadway has come to incorporating emo was in Duncan Sheik’s score for the late (and much missed) “Spring Awakening,” a show about the agony of young lust. “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” — which runs through May 24 as part of the Public LAB season and, at $10 a ticket, is one of the best bargains in town — plies that sensibility to evoke the oohs and ouches of a new country’s growing pains. (The first lyric of its first song: “Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in high school?”) And its scrappy, two-fisted title character (played by the lean, mean Benjamin Walker) is presented as the perfect national avatar of the period: an angry, enthusiastic and very hungry overgrown boy with a need for instant gratification and a whopping sense of entitlement.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Writer/director Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman borrow a page from the era-spanning "Spring Awakening" to create a satirical history lesson that presents Jackson (a charismatic Benjamin Walker) in modern terms with catchy songs and spiky, if often sophomoric, humor. It's a sort of "My So-Called Presidency" as it recalls Old Hickory's childhood, military career, grass-roots rise to the White House, plus his bigamist marriage and his infamous dealings with Native Americans.

The New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) The quirky humor of the knowing production style, however, is also the company’s problem. In the course of ninety minutes, a certain lyric and visual monotony settles in. Whether Les Freres Corbusier can travel north of Eighth Street will depend on whether Timbers and Friedman can add some emotional variety and characterization to their high camp. But, for the present grave moment, rollicking, in any shape or form, will do.

Bloomberg News B-
(John Simon) The show thrives on the sometimes funny, sometimes merely gross. Les Freres refer to it as “sophomoric” and “favoring the anarchic, the rude, the juvenile,” though that pre-emptive strike isn’t necessarily exculpatory or pardonable. Still, some of it is really funny. Thus Indian-killer Jackson addresses Chief Black Eagle: “You people are despicable creatures! You show no loyalty to anything, your music is terrible, your table manners suck, and your painting skills are absolutely dreadful. I mean look at this,” he says, pulling out a primitive drawing of a buffalo. “No artistic vision. You’re savages; you’re soulless, godless, and well you get the point.”

Time Out New York C+
(David Cote) Despite several smart-and-bouncy Friedman tunes and an ace cast—headed by cute, pouty Benjamin Walker in the title role—the overall proportion of snark to dark is distressingly off. Timbers keeps the action moving at cartoon speed, but he might have cut some tunes and beefed up the book. The last ten minutes are the best, when the disillusioned and power-mad Jackson offers Native Americans a final solution. At such times, one glimpses the sort of irreverent, complex musical this could have been.

Talkin' Broadway A+ 14; CurtainUp A+ 14; Theatermania A 13; AmericanTheaterWeb A 13; Just Shows To Go You A 13; Backstage A- 12; New York Post A- 12; Variety A- 12; The New York Times A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; The New Yorker B+ 11; Bloomberg News B- 9; TONY C+ 8; TOTAL: 154/13 = 11.85 (A-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw this show on Saturday and LOVED it - funny, fun, totally un-PC. I do hope it gets picked up for a longer run on a bigger stage...I want to see it again!