Theater Review - Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson presents a punk rock seventh prez
The new Actor's Express production plays with political anachronisms
"I want to tea-bag you!" a hot political groupie yells to an upstart presidential candidate in Actor's Express's irreverent musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. As a political reference, the line goes both ways. Book writer Alex Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman developed the brash, rock-inflected take on Old Hickory during the George W. Bush administration, but the play made its Broadway debut in 2010 at the height of the Tea Party protest movement. And while Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson primarily takes place in the early 1800s, the line could hark back to the original Boston Tea Party, working as a double entendre but not necessarily an anachronism.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson touches on the major events of Jackson's political career without worrying too much about historical fidelity. The musical presents Jackson (Maxim Gukhman) as a spoiled, impulsive rock star with the charisma to rally public opinion but not the temperament to manage the political system. Director Freddie Ashley attempts to make Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson the same kind of energetic youthquake as the playhouse's 2010 production of Spring Awakening. The historical satire presents such a snarky attitude you wonder if it will offer anything but snark.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson nearly drips with irony, from the Shepard Fairey-style Jackson posters that surround the performing space to its pop music references, like a political speech that turns into a re-creation of a classic Michael Jackson music video. An inane storyteller (the amusing Kerrie Seymour) narrates part of the action by initially gushing over Jackson and coming across as an overly bubbly librarian. Friedman's lyrics all but wink at a hipster audience. In "I'm Not that Guy," young Jackson sings, "Life sucks! And my life sucks in particular!" When Jackson woos his future wife Rachel (Galen Crawley), they croon, "It's not blood, it's a metaphor for love."
The play sketches Jackson as deeply resentful of the big-city status quo, so the concept of Old Hickory as an anti-establishment, rabble-rousing celebrity makes a certain sense. Gukhman gives the ideal performance for the material, portraying Jackson for most of the show as an impulsive, overgrown adolescent prone to violence and bad-boy swagger. With a cocksure grin worthy of Bradley Cooper, Gukhman preens before the crowd and attacks his musical numbers with gusto.
When Jackson enters the White House, the former general discovers that his militant style of command and forceful personality fail to sway deliberative bodies like Congress and the Supreme Court. Washington insiders like Jackson's lickspittle Martin Van Buren (Jeremy Wood) literally resemble clowns, wearing white noses and dunce caps. The action blurs over issues like the Nullification Crisis and touches briefly on the eternal problem with populism: How do you represent the will of the people when the people want contradictory things?
Apart from Crawley's impassioned rendition of "The Great Compromise," Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson's greatest dramatic weight emerges with Jackson's near-genocidal policies toward Native Americans, despite having adopted a Cherokee boy as a son and having a tribal leader (Jason-Jamal Ligon) as a friend. Unfortunately, the show's strongest scenes fit least comfortably with its rollicking music and silly treatment of the American experience. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson gets by on rock 'n' roll poses and laugh-out-loud parody without quite being one for the history books.