By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; C01
NEW YORK -- Just in time for the populist uprising of 2010, Broadway is host to a rock musical about the populist uprising of 1828. In the vibrantly subversive "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," the story of America's seventh commander in chief is set to a propulsive beat and packaged as a turbulent historical chapter ripe for postmodern lampooning.
Loud, rude and irreverent, the show, which opened Wednesday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, presents us with an idea of Jackson as a frontier rock star, a guy squeezed into tight leather pants and molded into the sort of hero around whom a nation could start to build its triumphal man-of-the-people myths. What's drawn over the course of 90 mostly persuasive minutes is a profane cartoon: a portrait of a willful leader, a fickle electorate and a juncture in a young country's history that seems to have sewn into our political culture a pattern of selfishness and immaturity.
"Populism, Yeah, Yeah!" sing the ordinary folk of Jackson's time, wearing the street clothes of the ordinary folk of ours. "Take a stand against the elite/They don't care anything for us," the lyric continues -- a complaint, it seems, that has an echo in every epoch. Though a complicated man with a curious private life, Jackson is, for the moment, the straight-shooting tonic for a restive populace.
But it's a messy matter, the business of governing: Jackson's expansionist agenda, the musical tells us, mandated the brutal booting of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands. So, too, does "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" feel at times sort of scattered. Though the magnetic Benjamin Walker is an exhilarating force in the title role, some ensemble members come across as a bit green on an imposing Broadway stage. And intermittently, Michael Friedman's score and Alex Timbers's book can seem better suited to a night of college skits. Slickness is not a desirable attribute on this occasion, but a consistent polish is.
With these deficits in mind, transferring "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" from off-Broadway, where it had a successful run last spring, was a nervy thing to do. The musical is, in fact, one of a trio of shows opening this week that exemplify how tricky it can be, figuring out what projects from other places or even times will strike pleasing chords these days in the commercial playhouses of midtown.
The others -- a bland rendition of "A Life in the Theatre," David Mamet's 1977 valentine to the profession, starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, and a revival of the erratic faux-classical comedy "La Bête" -- revealed for different reasons why stepping onto a big stage can present itself as a daunting leap.
If you want to elicit plaintive sighs from theater people, mention "La Bête." Set in 17th-century France, with dialogue composed in rhymed couplets by contemporary American playwright David Hirson, the show was a notable flop of the 1990-91 Broadway season. Convinced its swift leave-taking was premature, a cult of adherents wistfully has been awaiting a return ever since.
In the revival that opened Thursday night at the Music Box, the rest of us get to judge whether the play deserved better. And on the basis of director Matthew Warchus's stylish production, featuring a sensational turn by a clown from outer space, Mark Rylance, one can say categorically, unequivocally, that "La Bête" is one half of a surefire evening.
The good stuff begins the instant Rylance starts jabbering -- an act he keeps up virtually nonstop for 40 riotous minutes -- and ends with the marvelous entrance of Joanna Lumley as a French royal arriving in a tornado of glitter. Then, stack by stack, the meticulously amassed comic riches are subtracted, in a plot that shrivels up into limp satire and facile posturing. One comes to see why the play faded away quickly the first time around.
Hirson attempts in "La Bête" (French for "The Beast") to replicate a classical comic style a la Molière, with a modern twist. The issue at hand is an encroaching culture of mediocrity, encouraged by philistines with clout. The refined court playwright Elomire (a nifty David Hyde Pierce) is strong-armed by a misguidedly smitten princess (Lumley) to accept as a writing partner Rylance's ghastly Valere, a flatulent, belching no-talent of such stunning insensitivity that he takes the pages of Elomire's plays as items to be employed for bathroom hygiene.
It's a reversal of the premise of "Amadeus," in which the boor is the genius and the court favorite a composer possessing more in the way of political skill than musical gifts. But while "Amadeus" asks us to consider the tragic dimension of a man forced to confront his limitations, "La Bête" requires of an audience far less -- merely the absorption of a lesson about an intellectual who vainly tries to uphold standards.
Still, "La Bête" is so raucously front-loaded, thanks to Rylance, that even though the rewards diminish as the 110-minute play unfolds, the piece manages to maintain a giddy afterglow. Entering with a mouthful of melon and a wildly miscalculated sense of self-importance, Rylance's Valere terrorizes Elomire and an actor in his company (Stephen Ouimette) with a monologue of a length to match the size of his ego.
The speech is an actor's orchard of plums. Gazing upon Ouimette's Bejart, whom he notices has a hump on his back, Valere declares: "Wear that bump with pride/Too bad there's not one on the other side."
As Rylance -- a recent Tony winner for "Boeing-Boeing" -- takes in huge gulps of comic oxygen at the Music Box, the actors in "A Life in the Theatre" across West 45th Street appear to be gasping for inspiration. Stewart, schooled in the classics, and Knight, formerly of "Grey's Anatomy," are, simply put, mismatched in director Neil Pepe's revival, which traces the on- and offstage relationship between an older actor of waning acclaim and a younger one on the rise.
Stewart, enunciating crisply all evening, and Knight, affecting an oddly blase air, never manage to forge anything like an urgent bond: Whether at twin dressing tables or playing parody scenes from dramas of different genres, the two seem merely to be speaking at each other. An audience in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre never comes to any fuller comprehension of what a life in the theater is all about.
by David Hirson. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Sets and costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; composer, Claire van Kampen. About 1 hour 45 minutes. At the Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., New York.
A Life in the Theatre
by David Mamet. Directed by Neil Pepe. Sets, Santo Loquasto; lighting, Kenneth Posner; costumes, Laura Baker. About 90 minutes. At Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
book by Alex Timbers, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Timbers. Set, Donyale Werle; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Justin Townsend; choreography, Danny Mefford; music director, Justin Levine. With Kristine Nielsen, Bryce Pinkham, Maria Elena Ramirez. About 90 minutes. At Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York.
For all three shows, visit http://www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.