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The Evolution of Bloody Bloody Ben Walker

When actor Ben Walker steps on stage in the first moments of The Public Theater‘s new production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, you’ll immediately notice one thing. Well, if you’re a certain kind of person—if you’re me, in other words—you’ll notice one thing, and here it is:

That Ben is combustably hot. Nuclear fusion hot. (Or is that nucular?) Standing there in a snug pair of trousers and a gun holster that holds both an actual gun and a microphone, he plays the satirical, emo-singing seventh President of the United States in this new rock musical about presidential politics. (Good luck figuring out which politics the show embraces, however. No one, no party, and no ideal goes unscathed or unquestioned.) And he plays the role with hair-brained gusto and bravado. At some point, he even threatens to copulate with you. You, the whole audience. The whole world. And clearly, judging from their reaction, most of the audience is happy about it. My, how things change.

Because Ben and I, you see, have some unfortunate history. And if memory serves, “nuclear,” wouldn’t exactly have been my first descriptor of choice in 2005, when he was starring in the concert staging of a rickety-but-potential-filled new musical at Lincoln Center called Spring Awakening. Ben, you see, popped my Melchior cherry. And truth be told, he kind of sucked at it.

Some of the sucking was not his fault. Clocking in a nearly three hours and filled with high-handed monologues about like, death and stuff, the whole show was a leaden, pretentious mess full of kids who talked like grownups and grownups who just talked to much. It starred Walker, two actors I’d never heard of named Lea Michele and John Gallagher, Jr., and Michael Cerveris doing that pseudo-English accent that Madonna did when she was pregnant. The whole show needed a good therapist and some Prozac—and it would eventually get some, thanks Michael Mayer—but Melchior needed it most. Walker’s performance was whiny and charmless, and the character was a bore—not to mention a rapist, WTF. No matter how hard he worked, he simply could not convince me that Melchior deserved any kind of redemption.

The performance left such a bad impression that when I saw Jonathan Groff as Melchior at Atlantic Theater Company a year later, I had a really positive reaction, and not just because Groff is such a beautiful, darling little cupcake of a boy. His whole approach was different—more astute and wide-eyed, less bratty. I remember saying to a friend at intermission, “I just figured out what was wrong at Lincoln Center: That kid playing Melchior.”

Ouch. I know. And given that, I was cautious about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But apparently, I needn’t have worried.

I don’t know what happened. OK, I do know what happened. Walker went to the gym. A lot. But it’s not even that. It’s that in addition to getting buff, he got really good. And he landed a role that really suits him. He plays Andrew Jackson as an over-caffeinated lunatic who’s brimming with sly one-liners. The whole performance, with all of its winking irony and bawdy humor, is so well-calibrated. It feels both effortless and edgy—qualities that his Melchior could have used.

Granted, the show that’s surrounding Ben Walker and his emotive character this time is, frankly, a whole lot better than Spring Awakening was in 2005. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is funny and relevant and light on its feet. It does well by its hard-working actors. Of course, this show owes a lot to Spring Awakening, from its modern-idiom take on the past, to its liberal use of rockstar vernacular. But maybe Andrew Jackson took an even more important lesson from its knicker-wearing, hard-rocking successor: The need for a really great leading man.

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