Old Hickory is our first rock star president — an empty suit whose charisma blinds the electorate to multiple sins — in the satirical tuner “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas. Madcap style show, with equal parts of square and hip, is audaciously inventive, although fun and interest eventually start bleeding away due to competing satiric visions.
Tuner was developed by scribe/helmer Alex Timbers’ Gotham-based Les Freres Corbusier company, and the extensive research shows up as stilted dialogue straight out of textbooks, interspersed with unabashed anachronisms, droll physical comedy and a dozen emo-styled songs by the gifted Michael Friedman.
Form seems ideal for reconsidering the rough-hewn Jackson (a dishy, dynamic Benjamin Walker), as celebrated for his revolutionary populism as he is denigrated for the multiple massacres on his watch. A jolly academic narrates as Old Hickory’s youth is enacted in the manner of a foul-mouthed school pageant, introducing the blood obsession Timbers sees as central to Jackson’s (and America’s) soul.
As per rousing opener “Populism, Yea, Yea,” what’s most popular is his rip-snortin’ commitment to Manifest Destiny in wiping out Redcoats, Spaniards and “Injuns” with ruthless dispatch. Sharply played blackouts chart Andrew’s gory militia service; star-crossed marriage to soulmate Rachel (a glowing Anjali Bhimani, plighting her troth in blood, of course); and re-creation in song from “I’m Not That Guy” to “I’m So That Guy.”
Never mind his whiny tantrums when he fails to get his way, “We’ll take all the land,/And we’ll take back the country.” America, he’s the one that you want.
Timbers can write with admirable economy, as when a ruffled quartet — Clay, Calhoun, Martin Van Buren and J.Q. Adams — vogue downstage to instantly nail Jackson’s opposition. (Brian Hostenske’s fey Van Buren, who becomes Old Hickory’s giddy acolyte and eventual VP, is a comic standout.)
The price, though, is an inevitable heartlessness. Rachel dies to Friedman’s beautiful “Lullaby,” which can’t touch us because any minute we expect her to pop up and say something goofy. That’s the style, and until Timbers can figure out how to inject genuine feeling into his self-conscious satirical sideshows, emotionally affecting moments won’t fly within them.
“BBAJ’s” second half is both inconclusive and unsatisfying, given the confidence of what came before. Once Jackson enters the Oval Office, Timbers seems to say, “No more fun, let’s get serious,” and takes us into an animated lecture on the inconvenient truth of Jackson’s Indian policy.
Without motivation, Andrew is transformed from arrogant butcher into idealistic ditherer over the tribes’ plight. A national listening tour, full of unwise and contradictory citizens’ advice, leaves him more befuddled than before.
Ambition to satirize the soulless calculation and poll-watching behind “stuff happens” disasters like Iraq proves a trap, as slaphappy theatricality gives way to dreary argument. (A talking-heads distillation of the Cherokee Nation vs. U.S. dispute stops the show, though not in a good way.) Other stabs at poignancy fall flat, including an obvious coda that counterpoints the Trail of Tears procession with a self-congratulatory Harvard speech.
Throughout, Emily Rebholz’s costumes amusingly merge 19th and 21st centuries, and Jeff Croiter’s lights create an effective ambience for every performance mode from improv troupe to rock concert. Kelly Devine’s dances are chipper, though all seem to end the moment they begin.