SHOW: ANDY: A Popera

GENRE: Musical Theater

GROUP: Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies

ATTENDED: Sept. 11, 8:00 p.m., Opera in the City

CLOSES: Sept. 20

BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: A musical mélange inspired by the life, fame, and philosophy of Andy Warhol—ANDY: A Popera transforms an Olde Kensington warehouse into a den of pop iconography and absurdity.

WE THINK: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

That’s the first of a page of Warhol quips printed in ANDY’s program, although not one of the several which form a decent chunk of the show’s libretto, set to Heath Allen’s lively, impressionistic score. Well, fine then – have an inch, or three.

Gaudy, excessive and exuberantly superficial, ANDY: A Popera is in many ways a snugly fitting paean to Warholiana. You’ve got the knowing high/low frisson of rough’n’tumble camp-mongers the Bearded Ladies muckety-mucking about with Opera Philadelphia, who are in turn slumming it in a Kenzo warehouse. You’ve got an all-singing, all-dancing potpourri of only Warhol’s poppiest pop-tropes – the Brillo box; the Marilyns (eight of ’em, whose en masse transformation into blazing technicolor is one of the show’s most effective visual feats); the Velvets’ peeled-slowly banana (which turns up as a headdress for sex icon “superstar” Joe Dallesandro – at some points, the only thing he’s wearing); the “fifteen minutes of fame,” updated (I guess?) to fifteen seconds; and – of course – the soup cans. These last even serve to set up a bit of winky opera-pop, in a particularly silly moment wherein Campbell’s ingredient lists are sung to tunes from Carmen and the like.

Above all, it’s a big, splashy, self-gratifying spectacle.

It’s not, strictly speaking, about Andy Warhol in quite the ways you might imagine. We open with Andrei Warhola (his birth name) as a child, with his mother Julia (Malgorzata Kasprzycka) rhapsodizing about America and Coca-Cola, but any notions that might plant of a linear, life-story narrative to follow get uprooted pretty quickly. Andrei, played by Mary Tuomanen, is ostensibly at the center of the show, but – perhaps aptly – he doesn’t actually do much of anything. Instead – and naturally – we get a multiplicity of Andys, ten or so, portrayed by members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus in striped shirts, shades and silver shock wigs (“wig designer” – Rachel Geier – is a major credit in this show), who wander about chanting layered minimalism-style phrases or rendering the aforementioned quotables in dense, harmonically rich chorales.

Soon enough, we find ourselves at the Factory and witness the “creation” of several Warhol superstars, who are “pulled out of the crowd” in one of the show’s many gestures toward audience interactivity that never go nearly far enough. (We’re encouraged, for instance, to wave our arms around during a party scene… would it have been so hard to get folks actually up and moving?) I wanted more, too, of the show’s glib (and entirely appropriate) anachronistic references to our own abundantly Warholian, selfie-saturated age.

Ahem. Playing fast and loose with history and iconography is all well and fine, but things get a little more troubling, both aesthetically and conceptually, with the character of writer/”blogger”/would-be assassin Valerie Solanas (Kate Raines). She’s introduced as one of the superstars (which she wasn’t, but whatever) and, after the infamous shooting which hastens the show’s intermission, further established as a humorless, belligerent radical feminist caricature (which perhaps she was, but why harp on it) and a cold, maniacal villain bent on wresting control of Andy’s “creations” and casting them, at gunpoint if need be, in her own “liberating” “Poopera.” This whole puzzling sequence, which takes up the bulk of the generally muddled (and perhaps entirely unnecessary) second act, seems to serve little purpose other than mocking and vilifying a historically significant feminist thinker (with a mental health diagnosis) who had pretty little to do with Warhol’s art and ideas.

But whatever…who needs ideas when you’ve got witty-sounding aphorisms?

And who needs art when you’ve got humongous transforming cardboard boxes and fancy, live video feeds and big puffy soup can costumes (and hey, wasn’t that a corn costume from Bitter Homes and Gardens that randomly showed up for two seconds?) This is a big, elaborate production; the result of years of collaborative effort from many talented artists, and I had a very nice time watching it.

But is it art? Well, what would Andy say about that? According to the program, art consists of “things people don’t need to have,” as well as “anything you can get away with.”

Hey, I guess they nailed it!