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THEATER REVIEW

'Bloody' goofy musical

Andrew Jackson is turned into a hipster icon in a tale with echoes of today.

January 23, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Indie rock stars come in a variety of styles, but not many wear tight, blood-soaked T-shirts as they plunder Native American lands. But in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," the sardonically frolicsome, unabashedly sophomoric emo musical that premiered Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, America's seventh president is transformed into a moody hipster icon with a strange penchant for mutilation, both of himself and others.

As portrayed by Benjamin Walker with seductive boyish menace, Jackson can rouse a crowd with speeches as hypnotically as he can wield a microphone in concert. A leader who rode to power on brutal expansionist conquest and a fervid message of populism, "Old Hickory," as he was affectionately known to his admirers, comes across as a simple hick who grows up to discover that his decent looks, humble origins and can-do savagery exert a powerful hold on the masses.

The work -- written and directed by Alex Timbers and featuring a tongue-in-cheek score by Michael Friedman -- follows the revisionist account of Jackson's legacy. This version has become more familiar though such works as Howard Zinn's groundbreaking 1980 book, "A People's History of the United States," which observed: "If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people -- not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians."

The latter genocidal point is one of the show's central concerns, which should be a tip that this probably isn't your grandmother's idea of a nice matinee musical. But more challenging than the subject matter is the raucously silly way it's served up. The product of sensibilities shaped by the topical ironies of Jon Stewart and the profane zaniness of "South Park," "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" has little in common with the song-and-dance machines of yore.

Take the narrator (Taylor Wilcox), a school librarian type in a wheelchair who, like Timbers, can't conceal a starry-eyed infatuation with Jackson despite his atrocities. In chronicling his life, she suffers a punishing catalog of cartoonish abuse that ranges from slapstick whacks to crawling on all fours.

Yet for all the gory horseplay, the piece has an accessibility that's as jocularly didactic as those Schoolhouse Rock educational spots on TV that used to explain the functions of various parts of speech and how a bill becomes a law. Rarefied avant-garde performance this isn't. Imagine "Avenue Q" with a master's degree in American history. Or Brecht for people who secretly find him a bore.

Still, despite the incessant elbow-nudging, it would be a mistake to underestimate the seriousness of the intentions here. Damning parallels are drawn between George W. Bush's and Jackson's posturing as beer buddies who want to protect us from snobby elitists as much as from the barbarians threatening our sacred capitalist freedom.

When Jackson rails against tariffs and tries to make everyone feel that they're living at the whim of Indian terrorists, it's as though you've accidentally tuned into yet another primary debate.

Timbers, the artistic director of the inventive off-Broadway company Les Freres Corbusier, is best known for "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant," the delightfully daft sleeper he created with playwright and composer Kyle Jarrow. That piece, which enjoyed a run at Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theater, was a sort of newfangled saints play performed by kids.

For all its oddity, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" isn't as gleefully surprising as "Scientology Pageant." The humor of Timbers' book lacks the necessary sharpness, and the saga drags as it strives impossibly for encyclopedic completeness.

The supertitles tell us that we're still in the Creek War, but the only thing that's clear is Jackson's manipulative land grab. The story gets sketchier when Jackson commits bigamy by marrying the not-yet-divorced Rachel (Anjali Bhimani) and handing her a young Indian boy (Sebastian Gonzalez), whose family he massacred. And to follow the Twinkie-eating Martin Van Buren (Brian Hostenske), the election-stealing John Quincy Adams (Matthew Rocheleau) and the rest of the Washington power brokers with any nuanced understanding, you'll need a better social studies teacher than I had.

Friedman's score, performed by a small onstage band, is more decorative than memorable. The opening number ("Populism, Yea, Yea") is rousing. But emo, which has been called "punk music on estrogen," requires personal conviction, and a parody of the sound is ultimately a real yawn.

As for the lyrics, well, there's a dumb love song that invokes Susan Sontag's book "Illness as Metaphor" and a har-har version of "Ten Little Indians." The inappropriateness is intentional -- it's part of the daring attitude -- but a little more cleverness wouldn't be amiss.

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