This remarkably inventive and extremely smart musical retelling of the life of America's controversial seventh president, co-written by Alex Timbers (who also directed) and Michael Friedman, acutely illuminates some of the challenges that Jackson (the striking Benjamin Walker, who possesses a perfect blend of rock-star charisma and little-boy vulnerability) faced in his life.
Orphaned as a young man, the hot-tempered Jackson had to later confront the aristocratic Washington establishment (hysterically portrayed by Darren Goldstein, Bryce Pinkham, and Ben Steinfeld) who conspired to take the presidency away from him before gaining office. He also had a complex relationship with his wife Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), and above all, he struggled to find (an ultimately less-than-ideal) solution to the so-called "Indian question" that threatened the country's stability in the first third of the 19th Century.
Timbers' cleverness in telling this tale -- and making it relatable to present-day circumstance -- is balanced by his brash cheekiness, which relies primarily on anachronism to get laughs. Who knew Martin Van Buren (the absolutely hilarious, deliciously fey Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) was practically addicted to Twinkies or that the troubled Jackson once indulged in one of his ritual self-bleedings while Cher's "Song for the Lonely" played in the background?
Yet, there's no denying that the creators' meta-theatrical, anything goes approach worked better downtown; much of the show simply comes off as a hit-and-miss affair. For example, despite Kristine Nielsen's considerable comic gifts, the brief role of the storyteller feels now completely superfluous. And even for the most broad-minded person, the show's abundance of juvenile sight gags and overuse of profanity also wear out their welcome rather quickly. (Admittedly, the uptown venue --or the more mainstream audience vibe -- contributes to this feeling.)
In addition, Timbers may have also purposely toned down the cast's energy at times -- again to give the show a more traditional feel -- but the show now feels a bit sluggish, and its 100-minute running time doesn't fly by as quickly as one might like.
While Friedman's propulsive, emo-influenced score remains an invaluable component of the show's success -- often commenting on the action with wry detachment or lending an added element of passion -- one wishes there was simply more of it. (The show's score adds up to maybe 30 minutes.) Indeed, the top-notch ensemble (with special shout-outs to singers James Barry and Emily Young) does full justice to Friedman's songs, which are now augmented by Danny Mefford's spiffy choreography.
There can be no complaints, however, about the astounding work of scenic designer Donyale Werle and lighting designer Justin Townsend. Not only have they transformed the Jacobs' stage into an overdecorated hunting lodge, but the entire theater is festooned with chandeliers, walls are lined with portrait of dead presidents, and a dead horse hangs over the middle of the orchestra. It's a setting that would be hard for any show to live up to!
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