Being that I was an AP History student in high school, I’m embarrassed to say this: going into Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, I couldn’t remember a thing about this particular president. It’s a good thing there’s nothing like a loud rock musical to pound the facts into your head.
Chronicling the childhood and political rise of Andrew Jackson, our country’s seventh president (I learned this from the show!), this creation of Alex Timbers (book writer and director) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) is a random, wild-child piece of genius. Billed as an “emo rock musical,” Andrew Jackson strips the characters of any dense, political verbiage and colonial form. Instead, a rock star ensemble screams a hilarious rock score of the president that is both adored for being a “people’s president” and loathed for genocidal acts against the Native Americans.
Timbers, Friedman, and the rest of the creative team have dedicated themselves to the show’s “look,” and it’s that commitment that makes Andrew Jackson such a standout piece. Upon entering the theater, the audience’s experience begins. Scenic designer Donyale Werle and lighting designer Justin Townsend have strung distressed gold and red chandeliers on the ceiling, extending over the audience to the back row. Single-color decorative string lights pass over the chandeliers, and long neon bulbs (a la Kevin Adams’ designs for Spring Awakening and Passing Strange) hang on the sidelines. I felt as if I had walked into a grungy New York rock hall. The stage bears the same rock-grunge motifs, as well as wilderness clutter, to reflect Jackson’s Tennessee upbringing. There are so many details to look at on the stage that it’s frustrating to realize you can’t catch them all.
I’m sure the entire cast hugs costume designer Emily Rebholz every day for making them look sexy. The actors wear fantastic looking costumes that are a rock star-colonial fusion. The men wear jeans and colonial-style coats (with guyliner, naturally), while the women wear boots, frontier-inspired dresses and revealing tops. Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson is appropriately dressed the best. Playing a rock star president, Walker is outfitted in skin-tight black jeans, tightly fitted undershirt and an attractive white colonial coat. As a final touch, the leather gun holster strapped around his waist sets him up perfectly to reign as the outrageous first Democratic president.
Walker earns his presidency as Andrew Jackson. Amping up the confidence to a staggering level, Walker struts around the stage and screams into his wireless mic just as convincingly as any of today’s men of rock. Yet Walker lets the confidence give way to scenes of appropriate whininess. Faced with tough times and even tougher decisions, Walker portrays Jackson as an immature young adult, bewildered by his circumstances of political scrutiny and standoff with the Native Americans. (He comes off as a more charming Ashton Kutcher.)
The ensemble balances Walker’s Jackson perfectly. Each of the actors gets their own moments to shine and delight. The ensemble carries much of the show’s comedy, and they execute it winningly. Andrew Jackson is hilarious, not just for its content, but for its mood and delivery. Some quips are over the top and hilarious and some are dry and cutting. The cast commits to the show’s tone just as well as the creative side has to its aesthetic aspects. This is one well-running machine of a show.
The beauty of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is in its unexpectedness. It’s a random story to tell in a random form of storytelling. I didn’t know we needed a rock musical about President Andrew Jackson, but when the story is told through a modern vehicle, it shows present-day relevance. Nicer still is that Andrew Jackson does take a break from the hilarity and hits some sentimental notes. It nicely rounds out a production that is completely entertaining and amazingly original.
Planning how to rush Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was more difficult than actually doing so. The production is a limited run until May 9 and it’s selling extremely well. There are general rush tickets available for $20 (two per person) an hour before the performance, based on availability. Yet there is also a student rush available for $25 (one per ID) available at any time, even in advance (doesn’t even have to be the day of the desired performance). There were almost too many plans of attack on how to get the tickets. By just taking a risk and seeing what was available, I showed up at 3 p.m. on the day I wanted to see the show and asked if there was availability for student rush tickets. There were a few seats still available for that night and I picked one up. The seats were in the third-to-last row, but the box office attendant said the student rush seats are merely located wherever there is still availability. The Public Theater is small, so any seat is a good one. Not bad for a price that’s a little more than a Jackson.
Play: A- / Rush: A
Photo: Joan Marcus