As you enter the Bernard Jacobs Theatre you enter a cocoon-like setting. The house and stage are strung with ruby red lights that emanate out from the stage and over the audience. The stage and the audience feel as one. Also strewn about Donyale Werle’s magnificent set are various examples of taxidermy including deer heads and a stuffed horse trussed up and hung from the ceiling. The theatre’s columns are wrapped in animal skins and pelts. Chandeliers of various shapes and sizes hang overhead. You are in an old-west saloon. From the second your ticket is taken and you enter the theatre your senses begin to tingle.
The show has a narrator in the form of “the Storyteller,” played by Kristine Nielsen. Think of her as a history teacher or a tour guide at an Andrew Jackson Museum. She enters via motorized scooter with a large flag and a dorky sweater with kittens on it. This role is modestly funny but not entirely necessary. Ms. Nielsen makes the best of it. You want to applaud when she gets shot in the head by Jackson.
The entire cast is electric. Some characters are frequently silly and absurd but certain actors left an indelible impression; Bryce Pinkham as Henry Clay, Jeff Hiller as John Adams, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as VanBuren are great fun to watch as they turn their respective characters into garish caricatures. These are the men that were perceived to be behind the “corrupt bargain” that some say robbed Jackson of his office the first time he ran.
Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music/lyrics) most likely didn’t realize just how much they would be mirroring the national mood when they wrote this originally. Jackson was a maverick. He was sick of how the west was being represented by the government and decided to do something about it. Today we see that with the emergence of the Tea Party. Lyrics from the opening number “Populism” could be sung by a large swath of the American populace now, “take a stand against the elite | they don’t care anything for us | and we will eat sweet democracy | and let them eat our dust.” The score is melodic and driving and it’s been stuck in my head since the night I saw the show. That’s about the nicest compliment you can give a composer. Thankfully, here is a rock musical that is more musical and less rock when it comes to decibal levels.
In his role as director, Alex Timbers keeps the production moving swiftly on a current of upbeat numbers. Two terrific power ballads, “Public Life” which Benjamin Walker sings the hell out of and “Second Nature,” beautifully sung by the show’s band leader, Justin Levine also allow the show to change tempo when necessary.
The lighting, by Justin Townsend is stunning. His use of up-lighting gives the production an eerie glow.
It’s hard not to feel conflicted by the picture being presented. There is Jackson the hero and maverick played by a hot young sexy guy, but in reality we are watching a musical about America’s Hitler. The man was personally responsible for the death and suffering of thousands and thousands of Native Americans. He signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which eventually precipitated The Trail of Tears. It’s no wonder that Jackson and his wife Rachel were both “cutters” (they would relieve their physical or mental pain by blood-letting).
Being conflicted, I’ve come to realize, is our form of blood-letting. We can’t look at Jackson’s impact on this country, particularly as far as expansionism is concerned, and not face the atrocities he committed to the original inhabitants in the name of that expansion. Perhaps it took a satirical musical to make us face history. It is the shiny, campy and funny veneer on top of the brutal underbelly of American history that makes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson bloody bloody brilliant!