Few plays have commemorated the life of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president. And none, surely, have simultaneously sent up emo rock, packed in bigamy and you’re-so-gay gay jokes, and climaxed with chorus numbers about America’s genocidal delusions. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version tackles all this and more in an original musical revue depicting the life of Jackson—who was either a visionary populist or “an American Hitler,” depending on your point of view. (Like, if he murdered your ancestors and forcibly resettled half your race.)
This history pageant, a reverse-tribute spiked with sour ironies, is the latest creation of Les Freres Corbusier, a/k/a writer-director Alex Timbers, who stands at the front of the growing line of young downtown theater-makers commenting on American history through pastiche. Previous Les Freres shows have “celebrated” Benjamin Franklin, scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, urban planner Robert Moses, and the Shakers.
As the title indicates, Bloody Bloody does not strive for a nuanced view of Jackson’s homicidal land-grabs and rising political fortunes. On moral grounds, of course, nothing more sympathetic is called for. But Jackson’s one-track bluster and bravado present a dramatic problem: The first two-thirds of the comedy come off as blunt amplifications of dull-minded characters, in numbers like “Populism, Yeah Yeah.” Earlier Les Freres shows reveled in diabolical and unpredictable wit, supported by free beers at alternative venues. Here, in the more staid Public Theater, that offbeat humor has been supplanted by an overabundance of don’t-shoot-the-piano-player gags, confining the comedy to a well-worn Mad magazine shtick that it struggles to break from.
Michael Friedman’s resourceful score helps improve things, cleverly inviting us to both like and loathe the Broadway and emotional-hardcore styles his songs quote; these sentimental forms offer the perfect vehicle for America’s irrational state of mind along the campaign trail. But Bloody Bloody’s most original and surprising moments are the darker ones introduced in the last third of the show. When Jackson assesses his legacy at a university commencement, Benjamin Walker (solid in the title role) taps a righteous rage, showing us the murderous emotions powering the commander-in-chief’s territorial expansion program. In those chilling moments, the chasm between historical truth and our American fantasies opens wide; the revelation comes late, but better than never.