What’s wonderful and terrible and lots of fun all at the same time? Andy: A Popera, stage three of a several-year-long development collaboration between the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia. It’s got opera, it’s got audience participation, it’s got strobe lights and operatic voices and nudity and adult themes. It’s the story of Andy Warhol, his coming of age, and his impact on the culture of his time told through glimpses of his life and portrayed on stage, on screen, and in real life.
Andy, or rather Andrei, played by Mary Tuomanen, turns his camera on everyone: himself, the superstars he creates, and the audience members who briefly also become stars in the spotlight and on the screen. Tuomanen’s boyish demeanor captures Warhol’s gamin presence, and like Andy she focuses her attention outward on everyone else while at the same time masterminding the whole thing.
There is a conflation of history and the present in this show, but rather than feeling anachronistic — Andy notes admiringly that Beyoncé drinks Coke— it seems right. Warhol would have been very much at home in today’s media-crazed world and wouldn’t have cared much about the differences between reality and fiction, only that it could be turned into art and be sold. Imagine Warhol with a cell phone camera always ready to capture what he’s seeing. Imagine the number of followers he would have on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, or even his own platform to promote his Superstars.
Open the box
The setting is a warehouse filled with boxes, a large wooden box in the center. Julia Warhola (Malgorzata Kasprzycka), Andrei’s mother, wearing a dress splashed with pastels, asks someone in the audience to help her pull a rope marked “Pull.” When they do, the sides of the box drop open with a series of bangs, revealing a set filled with TV screens and white rectangles that move across the stage, beneath a large projection screen. Thus the show begins.
The boxes refer to Warhol’s Time Capsules, an exhibit of 612 containers, mostly carboard boxes, that contain artifacts of his life and work from the 1960s to 1987, when he died. The containers are held at the Andy Warhol Museum, where the contents of one time capsule are displayed and changed regularly.
The previous version of this popera, seen at the Wilma in July 2014, asked Why is Andy Warhol so famous? This production asks: What is Art? and Am I Art? Instead of a narrative approach to Warhol’s life, it recreates a Warholian experience, involving the audience in the mayhem, surrounding us with cast members, dropping Mylar balloons (reminiscent of Warhol’s work Silver Clouds) on our heads, even forcing us to walk through Andy’s hospital room; filming us and turning us all into art.
The whole is a mishmash of wonderful experiences and over-the-top camp performances, with perhaps too much crammed into the first act, and not enough story left over to fill out the second.
The death of Candy Darling (Scott McPheeters), a trans woman and Warhol Superstar, is one of the highlights of the production. We are drawn in emotionally, perhaps wanting to identify with someone, and when she asks the audience to take out their cameras and film her death, many oblige, as she expires in a swirl of silver fabric amidst a barrage of flashbulbs.
Another high point was the singing multiples of Marilyn Monroe in changing colors. That no one really looked like Marilyn was beside the point; this was turning personality into art, and who cared if Warhol had permission to co-opt her face or not.
The character of Valerie Solanas (Kate Raines), who shot Warhol in 1968, served three years, and was then released, was fascinating. The combination of tough feminist, speaking with a New Jersey accent, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, who then sings opera is jarring yet captivating. But turning the second act over to her and her own “opera” stopped the story and left us longing for Andy to revive and take over the show again.
Underusing the Superstars
Kristen Bailey is a believable Edie Sedgwick, addicted to attention and eventually to the alcohol and drugs that did her in. Unfortunately she has little to do in the production other than mug for the camera and then disappear into oblivion along with the other Superstars. Even less successful is the character of Joe Dallesandro (Sean Lally), another Superstar, who, in the show, dresses as a banana and then peels it all off but has little else to do.
Members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus play multiple Andys, Andy clones created by Andrei to replicate himself. In a sense these singers have cloned themselves — at the same time that they are appearing in this show, they have been busy rehearsing for Opera Philadelphia’s next production, La traviata. But while they have a chance here to be seen as individual artists, they have been subsumed under the persona of Andy and have become once more indistinguishable. In a sense, they have their 15 minutes of fame; in another, they don’t.
The lyrics come from pop tunes and from Warhol quotes. The singing is impeccable, particularly Maren Montalbano Brehm, the Opera Philadelphia Chorus member who sings for Candy Darling. The energy and fun carry the show along, even though the narrative arc could use some work, and too many of the characters aren’t fully developed.
For an evening of fun and surprises, this is definitely worth a trip out to Kensington, if you know where that is.