Andy Warhol played the deadpan fool but was nobody’s fool. The pop artist is still making money after death. One of his self-portraits sold for $38.4 million in a bidding war at an auction in May, 2011. Now Warhol is alive at Studio Theatre in a glitzy, high-powered, wildly funny musical, with book and lyrics by Maggie Kate Coleman and music by Anna K. Jacob, lampooning a slice of his life. POP! is an explosive and exciting multi-media extravaganza that pushes the envelope and is a must-see.
An usher leads us to 2nd Stage, along a corridor draped with glossy foil, onto the third floor. Bohemian costumed actors greet us and already the chic nightclub milieu of the Silver Factory is enveloping uss. This is the in–place-to-be in Manhattan where famous hippies, junkies, and Andy Warhol’s beautiful people hang out. This is where the avant-garde artist re-invented groundbreaking art with photo-realistic prints in the second half of the 20th century. Here is where Andy also welcomed social misfits until that fateful day on June 3rd of 1968 when one of them shot him.
Two revolver prints are projected on the back wall screen of a stage painted with concentric circles. The first-rate, well-modulated jazz combo of five musicians conducted, by music director Christopher Youstra, revives Warhol’s adopted, mid-1960s rock band, The Velvet Underground.
The sound of a gunshot shatters the calm. Tom Story, as a bewildered Andy Warhol, decked out in sunglasses, black leather jacket and pants, emerges, touches his chest, utters “ouch,” and picks up the smoking gun to take command of the stage. When he stoops to the floor and signs “Andy Warhol” on the chalked, crime-victim outline of his own body, we go with it. Hey, that’s something that Andy would do, if he were still alive and viewing his own death. Story projects a kind of ingenuous awe that enlists our trust as he sings “Paper Bag,” in which Warhol convinces us that the existential beauty of nothingness can be found in an empty paper bag.
The back screen is an interactive reflection. We’re not in a museum exhibition. We’re in an experimental art lab where gigantic Brillo Soap Pads boxes—an imitation of the artist’s subversive carton sculpture—are stacked in a corner. Across the upstage screen, ten paper bags appear. And we are introduced to the exhilarating liberation of Pop Art that celebrates consumerism.
The images don’t stop in this superbly smooth-as-clockwork, well-paced mixed media show, directed by Keith Alan Baker, with assistance from Hunter Styles and Jennifer Harris, and with spot-on integration by the tech team. “POP! (Who Shot Andy Warhol?)”, the theme, is a rousing ensemble number led by Candy (Matthew DeLorenzo), that puns on everything from onomatopoeic gun shot sounds, to popping drugs, to the Pop Art movement and deflated dreams, backed by a cartoonish “POP” in a huge caption looming out from the screen. Warhol pops up to a sitting position. Again, in a slightly nasal, flat voice, as if duplicating one of his silkscreens, he says, “Ouch.” This anti-climactic gesture vividly makes fun of Warhol’s quiet shyness and induces a big laugh.
Candy Darling, the transvestite drag-queen narrator, is portrayed by statuesque, sequin-gowned Matthew DeLorenzo, who uses sensuous body movement and his gorgeously-wicked, high-ranging voice to such advantage it’s hard to believe the actor is a man. Candy introduces the detectives, speed-freaky Ondine, (Sean-Maurice Lynch is a hoot); and a witty poet, Gerard (Luke Tudball), to the thrilling idea of a mystery-to-be-solved. The Gothic novel, purple-prose cliché: “…it was a dark and stormy night,” borrowed by Peanuts cartoonist George Shultz for Snoopy’s novels, becomes a unifying motif.
Throughout, blond-headed Story’s understated delivery, taking needling aim at the inflated egos and the hyped melodrama swirling around him, is hysterically funny. “I have nothing to offer,” is one of the best ironic deadpans in the show.
For Warhol, who was a successful commercial advertising artist before he turned to fine art, was a genius at drawing the crisp surface of things. His famous Campbell’s soup cans series came to symbolize the equalizing force of everything mass-produced, cheap, consumable and disposable in America, like his Coca-Cola bottles, silk-screened as cultural icons. Liz Taylor and the wealthiest and the poorest on earth could drink it. Warhol ate soup every day for lunch and claimed he painted the things he loved and consumed.
As for who shot him, the two detectives, Ondine and Gerard, in the song, “99 Superstars,” count up the movie stars and political leaders Warhol revered the most. On the screen, downsized versions of Warhol’s icons are pictured like mug shots. These are the celebrities Warhol respected and silkscreened — Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Liza Minnelli, Popeye, and Peter Pan. His admiration of Jackie and Mao wasn’t so much interest in their politics as in their fame. All are suspected killers. “99 superstars hang on the wall/99 possible suspects in all….”
The three outcast superstars who rank highest on the suspect list are socialite Edie (Marylee Adams), who has dissipated her inherited fortune and sings, “Poor Little Rich Girl”; Viva, “The Factory Intellect,” (Deborah Lubega), who after 15 minutes of fame has been replaced, but vows pay-back by singing “The Last Laugh”; and Valerie (Rachel Zampelli), the radical feminist founder of Society for Cutting Up Men (S.C.U.M.), who wants Warhol to film her book, “Up Your Ass.” All are superstars or wannabes in Andy’s underground movies and porn flicks.
When Zampelli, Lubega and Adams, all three gifted with resonant, knock-out voices, combine forces for “Big Gun,” their superstar characters come across as if they’re comic book super-heroines.
From this point on, the show is non-stop laughter, as we catch a glimpse of the behind-the-camera competition in the world of art. Warhol’s superstars helped him develop Pop Art as an assault on abstract expressionism, as exemplified in the hysterical mock-heroic “Untitled Brawl No. 1,” about Warhol’s struggle for recognition against artists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. In the battle of the paint brushes, we see how Andy Warhol moved American modern art away from the paint splattering of subconscious emotions on canvas, back to the dispassionate, photographic reality of things.
But this was the decade when women rebelled against being used as “things,” with or without pay. In the eye-opening, cynical song “15 Minutes,” delivered by the full company, we come to understand why Warhol put up a camouflage of detached cool for self-defense. The underground film superstars crave more than fame. They want money and a piece of Andy, who is notoriously penny-pinching. And therein lays the central conflict and a more deadly kind of competition.
There’s more to Warhol than meets the eye. And the musical does strive for a deeper, three-dimensional look into Warhol’s serious, darker side. We get sound bites from his childhood in “Mrs. Warhola’s Eulogy,” sung by the ensemble and Candy, who impersonates Julia Warhola, the artist’s mother, clarifying why Andy Warhol detaches himself from emotional confrontation. Andy, who grew up in the working-class steel-mill city of Pittsburgh, was a taunted social outcast.
A sickly boy, Mrs.Warhola tells us, “The other children stare and laugh….” Thus, we can assume Warhol aspired to be famous because it led to money and power.
Warhol worshipped money and art capitalism, as exemplified in Story’s singing the playful, “Money Songlet,” accompanied by cooperating images. His pictures of “money” are chuck full of not only Lincoln $1 bills, but also $100 bills with Benjamin Franklin’s face on them, a paradox in itself. The founding father who stood for frugal spending is pictured on the big buck.
The satire of worship touches darker tones that lap over into blasphemy. The Eastern Orthodox Christian funeral procession is a magnificent mock-up of religion, shamelessly profane. At one point, a priest swings a Campbell’s soup can like an incense burning censer; and the groupies gather to hear Ondine speak of Warhol as a deified saint. This scene is a spoof of Warhol’s own funeral and his denial of it, but it’s really funny.
And in one of the closing sequences we see a silkscreen of “Elvis I and II,” created in 1964, humorously acted out on stage. In the print, Elvis, as a cowboy, points a gun at us; but as his image is repeated, it fades, suggesting that even superstars disappear. This print becomes a powerful symbol in this musical. And the implications about the violence in American life and Warhol’s personal angst from a gunshot wound are infinite.
Overall, POP! is spell-binding. The lyrics really crackle with subversive references.The music adapts and helps scene transitions. The only flaw I can see is that the dialogue needs focusing to fill in the blank spaces. I came away from the theater wanting more than an answer as to who fired the shot and why.
What really makes Andy Warhol tick? Andy’s past affliction, as noted in “Mrs. Warhola’s Eulogy,” about Andy’s childhood nervous disorder disease provides the motivation behind the song and grotesque dance number, “The St. Vitus’ Dance,” vividly choreographed by Helanius J. Wilkins.
And it’s noteworthy to realize that a childhood disease caused Andy’s skin pigmentation blotchiness and that ghost-like white facial skin that later became part of his iconic look in his self-portraits. The impossible mystery seems to be Andy Warhol himself.
Written by Maggie-Kate Coleman and composer Anna K. Jacobs
Directed by Keith Alan Baker
Assistant directed by Jennifer Harris and Hunter Styles
Musical direction by Christopher Youstra
Choreography by Helanius J. Wilkins
Produced Studio Theatre at 2nd Stage
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.
[Hunter Styles, who worked on this production, is a writer for DC Theatre Scene. That did not affect this review.]