Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

There Will Be Blood

January 26, 2008

Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson and cast
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2008

Following the 2006 Broadway opening of Spring Awakening, numerous rave reviews poured in. (Mine among them.) Some of the more excitable critics even went so far as to pull out the old chestnut about the work changing the face of musical theater. Of course, now in 2008 amidst a season of Young Frankensteins and Little Mermaids this call may seem a little premature. However, if you are looking for the true son of Awakening you wont find it in New York, but in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theater in the form of a raucous, energetic, and almost brilliant new production, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

With a book by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, Jackson picks up where Awakening leaves off. Here a highly talented young cast are at play in the fields of American History. Timbers and Friedman take a very funny but often pointedly serious reconsideration of Andrew Jackson’s legacy by recasting the 7th president as a sort of “emo” rock star who is burnt in the end by the very populism he rides to victory. The hero of earlier battles is later defeated by his own inability to please all of the people all of the time in a fickle and fractured populace. While the “emo” conceit would seem a stretch it works quite well with Jackson’s well-known belief in blood letting, now translated as a preoccupation with cutting. The events of the show roughly follow Jackson’s own life and rise to power often peppering the action with bouts of adolescent angst. There is liberal use of sometimes broad and sophomoric comic bits, but these begin to fade as the material takes a darker and darker tone as Jackson is elected president. All of this cannily recalls current affairs with subtle jabs at the ins and out of populism.

The look of the show and the performances are fantastic. Early 19th century western wear is paired with some modern and anachronistic touches to delineate relationships and plot points. The saloon-like set features a display case with a large stuffed alligator and a huge natural history diorama filling the back of the stage featuring the “Mammals of North America.” The lighting is superb and the cast makes the most of these wonderful surroundings. The energy level here is great and the cast goes very far with what they have. Benjamin Walker’s Jackson and Brian Hostenske’s Martin van Buren are particularly winning amongst a uniformly strong cast that easily dispatches the singing and dancing chores laid out for them.

My only issue is that their work load is a little lighter than it should be. Probably the weakest link here is the music. One thing Jackson doesn’t have are the kind of big hooks Duncan Sheik can write and many of the piece's lyrics seem forced and underdeveloped. At times the songs seem to disappear altogether in overly lengthy scenes, and the creative team has made strange decisions like to do away with an 11 o’clock number all together. The piece does get bogged down at times by the biographical framework it has chosen which goes roughly from Jackson's childhood until he decides, as president, to forcibly remove Native Americans from their land and march them across the continent to Oklahoma.

Still, Jackson deserves to be a hit and probably an ever bigger one down the line with a little more work. It pulls no punches on everything from issues of race and youth culture to some loving swipes at Susan Sontag of all people. (She was apparently the original topic for the musical which was later wisely reconsidered.) The immense energy and wit are frequently overpowering even against relative weaknesses. It runs through February 17th and it is highly recommended.


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