Andy Warhol has been spotted in Kensington, alive, well, and ready to party.
When you walk toward the door of the “Factory” in Kensington, you can feel the vibe. Some of the people milling about look as if they were from 1960s New York. When the show starts, they step onto the stage.
The scenarios and text created by John Jarboe and Sean Lally show details in Andy’s life and provide a panoply of his art, such as silver pillows raining down on the audience. The feat of presenting the essence of an entire life, even a short life, in a two-hour show exceeded all of my expectations. Bravo to Opera Philadelphia for joining Bearded Ladies for this production.
Showing his shyness
From the start, the crippling shyness that Andy Warhol fought all of his life is vividly portrayed by having him hide in a box and take pictures of the audience. His mother pulls him out, extolling the virtues of this wealthy country where every successful citizen drinks Coca-Cola.
As he sees his various incarnations beside him on the stage, he studies them to imagine who and what he is and what he wants to be. André/Andrei/AndyWarhola, (played superbly by Mary Tuomanen) straddles the border between inventive sophistication and naiveté. As he prepares to embark on his artful journey, he embraces everything American for better or for worse, and chooses to become Andy Warhol. If we don’t like what he shows us of our America, is it his fault?
The production did not have time to present the diligent, disciplined young Andy Warhol, the one who was bullied in school, the one whose mother taught him to draw and took him to free drawing classes on Saturdays, the one who took his school buddy on sketching expeditions, the one who girded his loins against pure fear and marched his torn-up tennis shoes from office to office in New York with his paper bag portfolio, the dependable Andy who always got the job done, who developed a technique of a blotted ink line drawing produced by a simple monotype process, the one who designed album jackets for RCA, illustrated posters for CBS radio reports, won prizes for his commercial shoe drawings. This was still the forlorn and shy, yet hardworking boy everyone called “Raggedy Andy.” He never flashed his money, he never neglected his family, and he went to church every day with few exceptions. The real Andy was amazed at his own popularity, and Mary Tuomanen shows that surprised delight in her Andy.
But the pop Andy was as loud and clear as the rollicking music composed by Heath Allen and Dan Visconti. It was hard to tell which composer did which music, and the two created a seamless flow of coherent sound. The pit musicians were lively, smooth, and set the ’60s rock mood. Heath Allen was superb on keyboard.
Jarboe and crew provided wild Warhol pop visuals in cast, costume, staging, and set. The video design was complex and fascinating, flipping from audience members to views on stage and back again. Five Marilyns appeared looking rather Marilyn, if you could suspend your noticing their skins or beards or size. They had Marilyn white-blond wigs, big bosoms, and were singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” so you got the point. But just as Andy colorized his Marilyn silk screens in wild and unrealistic slashes, the Marilyns on stage had their wigs changed and kliegl gels changed their colors, too.
Some vocals were professionally adjusted for the better. Candy Darling borrowed the voice of Maren Montalbano to hit the wildly high soprano notes in a clear and beautiful flurry. Kristen Bailey put just the right pizzazz and breath into Edie. Malgorzata Kasprzycka was perfect as the eternally present Mama to her Andy.
The heavy emphasis on Valerie Solanis, played heavily by Kate Raines, was too much — but of course it was too much for Andy, too. And it was difficult to follow the multiple sets — the kitchen upstairs, the stage, the actors in the audience, and the videography — but wasn’t that just like a Warhol production?
Was Andy a true artist? When stuck in an art appreciation class at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the 1980s, I was once cornered by a Warhol Brillo box and asked,“Pourquoi?”
This wild and irreverent tribute to Andy has provided me with the perfect comeback: “Pourquoi pas?”