A Bloody Mess...but a Bloody Good Shot

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There are scores of problems with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the new rock musical receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, but before any talk of its shortcomings, one thing should be made clear.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is exactly the type of theater that should be seen on the Douglas stage. Since it opened with a handful of new plays in 2004, the Douglas has too often been used as a sort of clearing house for existing projects and too rarely used as a laboratory for new work.

In both the scope of its production and its content, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fits perfectly in the 317-seat theater -- it's not so big that it seems puffed up, but it's not so small that it feels amateurish. No, it's the kind of medium-sized, off-Broadway caliber work that's missing in LA, a town that increasingly feels like it only offers two options: Big, expensive blockbusters and tiny, one-person vanity projects.

Developed in conjunction with New York's Public Theater, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not groundbreaking, but it is current, both in its use of indie-rock music and its ironic sensibilities. However, despite all the ambition, fun and good ideas at work in this rock-opera about America's seventh President, it never adds up to fully coherent or satisfying theatrical experience.

That's the opening number of the show which promises that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will be a sort of theatrical garage-band version of Schoolhouse Rock; but Michael Friedman's music never really grabs the ear, nor do his lyrics gracefully simplify American history in the manner of Schoolhouse Rock classics like "I'm Just a Bill" or "The Shot Heard Round the World." Friedman does provide a cute vaudeville ditty about the corrupt 1824 presidential election and his laconic, emo-riff on "Ten Little Indians" effectively communicates Jackson's treatment of Native Americans.

The second half the show focuses on Jackson's infamous "Indian Removal Act," the most controversial policy of "the Age of Jackson." Here the show grinds to a halt because Friedman and writer/director Alex Timbers (who five years ago directed a show titled President Harding is a Rockstar) can't inject their irreverent style into this more sober subject matter. The show works best when dealing with Jackson's swashbuckling youth. Their thesis of Jackson as the first celebrity president rings true, as early on Timbers and Friedman aim their sophomoric sarcasm at their characters: including the blustery Jackson, a swishy Martin van Buren, and even the show's narrator: a wheelchair-bound, lesbian Wellesley grad, who Jackson shoots dead when she takes too long telling his story.

Points like this, when Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is at its most raucous, work well and the show becomes a sort of 1776 for the Daily Show generation. What's missing though in Timbers' script is a deeper understanding of Jackson, and -- a few Bush comparisons notwithstanding -- a way of making Jackson's populist leadership seem relevant. Part of the problem is lead actor Benjamin Walker, who lacks the fundamental charisma and toughness to play Old Hickory—nor is he particularly distinguished singer.

In this election year, a musical about the first Democrat elected president would seem to be a great candidate for a breakthrough hit; but before it moves on to New York (in November perhaps?), this populist upstart needs to retool its shaky platform and most of all, find its voice.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues its campaign at the Kirk Douglas Theater through February 17.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Craig Schwartz