BOTTOM LINE: The most entertaining history lesson ever.
The rock musical has become the prolific genre of late, with the message as important as the production value. Take the new Broadway show American Idiot, or Next to Normal, 2008’s Passing Strange, or even Rent; all of these shows are thematically grittier than what musicals tend to portray, with serious social commentary communicated through guitar riffs. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the new off-Broadway musical now playing at The Public Theater, fits comfortably in this category. It is politically charged, historically interesting, and intellectually stimulating, while at the same time silly, hyperbolic, understated and low-budget. There’s a lot going on in early 19th-century America.
People are loving this show, and I will gladly join the ranks of fans. My expectations were high, and rightly so, as it has been lauded by critics far and wide. But reviews being subjective things, I found that I also had some issues with the story. That’s not to say that my overall feeling is anything but positive — Bloody is mostly an enjoyable satire — but I can’t help but think that $80 for a ticket is a high asking price for a production that feels slightly unfinished. More about that later.
Evoking vibes of self-aware commentary shows like VH1’s Best Week Ever and sketch comedy like Upright Citizens Brigade’s, Bloody utilizes a cast of 13 to tell the story of Andrew Jackson’s rise to political power. With an unobtrusive, navel-gazing sensibility, the young performers are deft comedians who know their timing. The show is full of gags and it’s almost constantly funny. Add to the humor catchy songs and solid vocal performances, and Bloody becomes one of those special musicals: the kind that knows exactly what it’s doing and wants to share the joke with its audience. The underlying comment is always ”Wait till you see what we have in store for you next.”
It’s with that charm that Bloody tells an otherwise serious and historical tale. If you’re like me and you’ve retained nothing from history class, you might find this story both interesting and weirdly relatable to the present day. Jackson was an ”everyman” president (the 7th, to be exact), born from small means and with a burning desire to do right by his country. He created his own path to Washington and sort of bullied his way to the White House. He was pro-slavery and anti-Indian, kind of an all around jerk when you look back at his morals. However, he amassed a following and found his way in politics. And his story is an amazingly appropriate — and dramatic — tale to be told on a stage. Sure, the script takes some liberties at the expense of a more entertaining show (i.e. Jackson goes from military governor of Florida to presidential candidate in one speech, forgoing decades of political appointments in between) but that’s necessary when condensing a lifetime into a 90-minute play.
The overall aesthetic of Bloody is very cool. Scenic designer Donyale Werle creates a busy but grand set that pushes into the house. With a burgundy tone, the visuals evoke a sense of run-down royalty. Justin Townsend’s lighting design utilizes neon lights in interesting patterns to give the show the rock concert vibe it deserves. The result is a viscerally engaging feel, in both look and sound (sound designer Bart Fasbender does a commendable job keeping everything clear).
My one quibble with the show is its inconsistency in tone. When it is a satire, and a grandiose glimpse into the life of this twisted politician, the story bounces right along. When it gets serious, however, it comes to an awkward halt and then has trouble getting back to a lighter place. This is especially true of the ending, which gets weighty and sober. I’m not against a comedy breaking stride and getting serious when the story requires it, but I wish Bloody kept it light the whole time — it would almost be more prolific that way.
Regardless, playwright and director Alex Timbers does a first-rate job with this production. It’s incredibly entertaining and will hopefully have another life after this off-Broadway run at The Public. There is always room for a clever new musical in New York’s theatre scene, especially one that pushes the envelope thematically and presentationally.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., through Sun 5/30. Performances are Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 9:30 PM, and Sun 2 and 7 PM. Tickets are $70-$80; to purchase, visit tickets.publictheatre.org. Get $49 tickets for Sat 9:30 performances after 5/16; ticket price includes one free drink. And for more New York theatre reviews and information, visit Theatre Is Easy at theasy.com.