STAGE REVIEW: “Bloody” good show

Posted on 14 Jun 2012 at 4:10pm

Remember those elementary school history pageants where a kid plays Abraham Lincoln in an ill-fitting Sunday suit and stovepipe hat made out of construction paper and tape? Or the School House Rock sequences on Saturday morning cartoons? They were all about teaching history in accessible, simple ways.

Now imagine the same thing, only with people screaming “Fuck!” a lot and Martin Van Buren portrayed as a mincing fop. That’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

An off-Broadway hit, Bloody made smaller ripples when it moved to B’way; no wonder. The musical is angry and funny and very outre — it’s Spring Awakening about politics, or Avenue Q with fewer puppets (there are some). It’s a hard sell.

But it shouldn’t be. The local-premiere production, now at Theatre 3, is as energetic as a freight train going downhill without a break. A cast of 16 moves frantically through about 70 years of early American history, from the expansion of the West into the Louisiana Territory and “the slavery question” and how the Native Americans were treated by the U.S. government. It touches on the internecine particulars of the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824 and the inevitable hypocrisy of true populism as a political and governance philosophy. These aren’t topics many college kids grasp, but the script (by Alex Timbers) and score (my Michael Friedman) boil it down by turning Andrew Jackson (Cameron Cobb, in the rabidly maniacal performance of the summer) into a hard-drinking, vulgar rock star.

The gimmick works (hey it worked, with more subtlety, for Amadeus). After all, what better way to capture the experience of two centuries ago than to put it in a modern idiom? Cobb wears guyliner and a T-shirt and skinny jeans, and thrusts his crotch at the audience for sport — maybe not what Jackson did in a mourning coat and frilly frock, but if the tone is off, the point is clear: Jackson was a man of the people, but when he actually had to lead, he became an monomaniacal as Donald Trump. It’s a musical about the mythology of American culture.

Bits of Bill and Ted’s and Monty Python and the Holy Grail sneak in, especially in the handling of the lesbian narrator (Wendy Welch) who keeps getting shot in the neck by Jackson, and the fast-cutting humor. The score is fun, though not catchy; other than the recurrent motif (“Populism! Yeah, Yeah!”) the songs left my head moments after I heard them. But they work.

David Walsh’s set, full of bunting and old portraits and looking more like a museum come to life, is one the best Theatre 3 has done (and they come up with damned inventive sets for a theater-in-the-round). Welch, Ariana Movassagh (who, like Bernadette Peters, still seems as fresh as an ingenue despite years of performing) and Michael McCray as van Buren stand out, but Cobb dominates the show. You see the complexities of Jackson — was he one of the 19th century’s greatest presidents or an American Hitler whose genocide of the Native Americans is our saddest legacy? — in his performance. History has never felt more alive.

Now playing through July 7.

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