Surprises abound throughout Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the remarkably inventive and often hilarious musical retelling of the life of America’s controversial seventh president by Alex Timbers (who also directed) and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, now at the Public Theater.
For example, who knew Martin Van Buren (the absolutely hilarious Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) loved Twinkies? Or that John Quincy Adams (the rollickingly fey Jeff Hiller) was such a wuss. Or especially that the troubled Jackson (the striking Benjamin Walker, possessing a perfect blend of rock-star charisma and little-boy vulnerability) once indulged in one of his ritual self-bleedings while Cher’s “Song for the Lonely” played in the background.
Over 90 minutes, just about anything goes in this show — from dancing male Indians to girl-on-girl action to the presence of a wheelchair-bound lesbian (the superb Colleen Werthmann) who serves as our intermittent narrator and Jackson’s occasional nemesis. Expect the unexpected.
Indeed, the too-much-is-never-enough approach of theater collective Les Freres Corbusier — whose previous outings include Boozy and Dance Dance Revolution — is evident from the moment one walks into the Newman Theater. Not only has the stage been spectacularly transformed into an overdecorated hunting lodge by set designer Donyale Werle and lighting designer Justin Townsend, but the entire auditorium is festooned with chandeliers and the walls are lined with portrait of dead presidents.
Yet, for all its sometimes dizzying, post-modern, meta-theatrical approach to American history, the musical does a remarkably smart job at illuminating some of the challenges the actual Jackson faced in his life, such as confronting the aristocratic Washington establishment who conspired to take the presidency away from him, his complex relationship with his wife Rachel (the very fine Maria Elena Ramirez), and above all, his less-than-ideal solution to the so-called “Indian question” that threatened the country’s stability in the first third of the 19th Century.
While most of our education about “the man who put the man in manifest destiny” comes from Timbers’ clever script, Friedman’s propulsive, emo-influenced score is an invaluable component of the show’s success, often commenting on the action with wry detachment or lending an added element of passion.
Equally valuable is the hard-working, often-multi-tasking cast, which includes River Aguirre, James Barry, Michael Crane, Michael Dunn, Greg Hildreth, Kate Cullen Roberts, Ben Steinfeld, and Emily Young. Indeed, a more bloody good group of players would be hard to ask for.