Ben Walker’s ‘Bloody’ Jackson Falters on Broadway: John Simon

Benjamin Walker in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" in New York. The new musical is running on Broadway at the Jacobs Theatre. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Jeffrey Richards Assoc. via Bloomberg

“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” a youthful romp of a rock musical taking a caricatural view of Jackson and American history, has transferred to Broadway’s big league in what may be an act of pride that goes before a fall.

A show that has already played in the more intimate quarters of Los Angeles, Williamstown and New York’s Public Theater now rattles around in a big Broadway house for which it is not grown-up enough.

“Bloody Bloody” was written and directed by Alex Timbers of the rather campy ensemble Les Freres Corbusier, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman of the Civilians, another cheeky group with hypertrophic ambitions.

It’s a show that would have thrived at Harvard’s Hasty Pudding or other Ivy clubs where rowdiness, impudence and anything else happily goes. Indeed, when I reviewed “Bloody” at the Public, I found it mildly amusing and worthy of a friendly pat on the shoulder.

On Broadway, however, it proves more deserving of a slap in the face. This despite a highly accomplished Andrew Jackson from Benjamin Walker, a young actor of charm and versatility who brings both qualities to his portrayal of the seventh U.S. president.

Heap of Sound

The rest -- impersonating politicos Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, Quincy Adams and Van Buren, along with a motley mob of Indian chiefs, Spanish and English soldiery, Mrs. Jackson and sundry womenfolk -- do well enough only by clever sophomoric standards.

The three-man onstage band produces a powerful heap of sound; Danny Mefford’s choreography moves 19 bodies around with restless polysexual brio and Emily Rebholz’s costumes retain their downtown punk chic.

But Donyale Werle’s scenery, a kind of blood-red Wild West bar/bordello with stuffed animals scattered through the auditorium, gives the show away. Although it sometimes opens up a bit, it mostly uses only the flat front of the stage, suggesting a rock concert, which characterizes much of the operation.

While history is followed in a rough-and-tumble, brutal comic-strip way, the language is scatological, obscene, deliberately anachronistic (references to Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault and such) as well as manically repetitious and, above all, proudly juvenile. So slapdash is Timbers’s book that it repeatedly has Andrew’s parents die of both Indian arrows and cholera.

Ear Bangers

Friedman’s music yields some attractive moments, but the onstage musicians are all too happy to split our ears. The young cast carries scruffy unsightliness to unmatchable heights. The only name actor, Kristin Nielsen, spouting the voice of history from a wheelchair, is charmless as usual. Other women in the cast, notably the unwinning actress portraying Mrs. Jackson, fare no better.

I must confess that the folks around me seemed to find most of it hilarious. Much as I wished to, I couldn’t join them.

At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Good
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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