What’s art? The characters in Andy: A Popera, a new piece based on the life of the pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, get asked that question many times, and they have many answers. “An opportunity,” says one. “[A] paycheck,” says another. As for Warhol himself, one of his answers is “Art is what you can get away with.”
If that’s true, then Andy: A Popera is a true work of art. It takes a lot of bold chances, and it gets away with most of them.
Staged in a large warehouse in an industrial section of Kensington, Andy: A Popera starts with a bang – literally. A huge crate, perhaps twenty feet tall, sits at one end of the warehouse, marked “Open Slowly and See” – a variation on the famous tagline Warhol used on the cover of The Velvet Underground’s first album. An audience member is recruited to pull a rope, and the wooden sides of the immense crate fall to the ground with a deafening bang. Inside the crate is a nested series of cardboard boxes – and cocooned inside of those boxes is a young Andy Warhol, here going by his original name, Andrei Warhola, and played wonderfully by an oddly androgynous Mary Tuomanen. Andrei makes his way out of this womb, past his sweet but misunderstanding mother (Malgorzata Kasprycka), and heads to New York to create art as he sees it. Tuomanen sings in a clear, lovely soprano, but she’s soon joined by a chorus of “Andies” singing in multiple ranges (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass). Tuomanen lip syncs as the other “Andies” sing, dramatizing shrewdly how Warhol adjusted his personality to suit his audience.
Part of the genius of Andy: A Popera is the way it brings Warhol’s two-dimensional art to life. Instead of showing how Warhol made his famous Campbell’s Soup can images, we see a century’s worth of Campbell’s logos dance across a video screen (Jorge Cousineau did the stunning video design) as cans are emptied onstage and the singers list the ingredients. In the end, Andrei and the singers judge what they’ve created: “There’s nothing there,” they sing, but “it’s beautiful.” Later, Warhol’s multicolored prints of Marilyn Monroe transform into an army of Marilyns played by actors of different genders, sizes and races, each wearing a different colored dress and a different colored wig. “What about me?” sing the Marilyns; Andrei responds, “You were just a picture of a dead woman. Now, you’re art! My art.”
Heath Allen and Dan Visconti’s music – played by a five-piece band that features Allen on keyboards – covers a wide range stylistically, from poppy melodies to complex choral music to space music to ambient blips. Hard rock guitar is the musical signature for the “Warhol superstar” Joe Dallesandro (played by a lovably goofy Sean Lally), while the would-be assassin Valerie Solanas (a nicely aggressive Kate Raines) stages her own mini-opera full of polyphony that mimics her own conflicted, deranged thoughts.
Andy: A Popera is filled with arresting images, each more bizarre than the last. And the big space of the warehouse is a perfect setting for the story of a man who made big statements. Unfortunately, the sound mix in the huge warehouse does the show no favors. Some of the lyrics (the show’s text is credited to “John Jarboe in development with Sean Lally & ensemble”) are impossible to make out, especially the ensemble pieces sung by members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus.
Jarboe’s direction – accommodating dozens of performers on several different levels, with actors going into the audience and improvising – is mightily impressive. But while the show is fun to look out, there’s way too much to absorb. If you don’t know the stories of Warhol hangers-on like Dallesandro, Solanas, Candy Darling, and Edie Sedgwick, then much of this show will probably confuse you. And while Solanas’ near-murder of Warhol was the pivotal event of his life, the show spends far too much time on Solanas’ hostile tirades. (It also gives the impression that Warhol died shortly after the attack, when in fact he continued to live and work for almost two decades).
Andy: A Popera is a remarkable and unified piece of work, though it’s far from perfect. At its best, it’s striking and a lot of fun; at its worst, it’s self-indulgent, harsh, and downright weird. But then again, all of that was true of Andy Warhol, too.
Andy: A Popera, part of the 2015 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, plays through September 20, 2015 at Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies, performing at 1526 North American Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 592-9560, or purchase them online.