A post-modern fusion of Pop art with opera, ANDY: A POPERA, a work-in-progress by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, explores the enormous fame and legacy of Andy Warhol, with elements of both tragic opera and opera buffa. The synthesis reflects in part the ambiance of Warhol’s Factory in the Sixties. Superstars Ondine and Billy Name were opera buffs and regularly played full-length classical recordings (which could be heard in the studio along with live sessions by the Velvet Underground and such current hits as the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “I’m in with the ‘In’ Crowd”—a Factory favorite) while Andy and his coterie were creating silkscreens, giving interviews, entertaining world-famous visitors, partying, and shooting the underground films and photos that documented it all. The Warhol circle was indeed operatic, in the latest and most colorful Pop style.
This, the second phase in the show’s development (the first was a series of pop-up performances around town; the third will be a full-chorus opera in March 2015, in collaboration with Opera Philadelphia) transforms the lobby of the Wilma Theater into a cabaret, with “special soup” (the special ingredient is liquor, not sodium) included in the ticket price. The premise of the show revolves around the parody of a confused lecture by fictitious Warhol scholar Dr. Peter P. Never (Sean Lally), who opens one of Andy’s Time Capsules—the 612 containers (mostly cardboard boxes, now in the archives of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh) into which the artist routinely deposited the mundane ephemera and significant memorabilia from his life and studio over a 30-year period—thereby unleashing a series of fantasy scenes based on Andy’s past. The professor’s perspective perpetuates the outsider’s clichéd myth of Warhol, focusing on the surface and the scandals, not the inner man or the truly revolutionary historical significance of his art.
Visuals are key to the show, since Pop Art of the 1960s represents a return to object as subject, after the non-objectivism of the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the art world in the 1940s and ‘50s. Taking their cue from Warhol’s artistic repetitions of everyday consumer items and revered cultural icons, along with his passion for recording and preserving everything for posterity, the original ensemble-devised work (with lead writing by Lally and Beards’ founding artistic director John Jarboe, who also directs) includes larger-than-life singing soup cans, appearances by serial Marilyns and Elvises in bright Pop hues, and live-feed streaming on black-and-white and color tv monitors on opposite sides of the stage (costumes by Rebecca Kanach, wigs by Rachael Geier, props by Logan Wall, scenic design by Oona Curley).
The script incorporates reworked quotes, interviews, and writings by Andy and the denizens of the Factory, and the score contains original music and lyrics, as well as new arrangements of well-known pop songs, by music director Heath Allen (performing live on keyboards, with Ben Diamond on drums and Andrew Nelson on bass, and sound design by Daniel Perelstein). In addition to the Beards’ company members Liz Filios as Andy’s loving Slovakian mother Julia Warhola and Kristen Bailey as 1965’s Girl of the Year Edie Sedgwick, the ensemble includes Scott McPheeters as the heart-wrenchingly beautiful and doomed drag queen Candy Darling and Jennifer Kidwell as the lunatic feminist Valerie Solanas (who shot and nearly killed Andy in 1968), and opera singers John Miles, William Lim, Karina Sweeney, and Lucy Dhegrae–all of whom appear in multiple roles and as the vocal chorus. There’s a lot going on here, mirroring the excesses and complexity of the period, but in the end, Dr. Never never understands why Warhol is “so big.” I can only hope that audiences who have little more than a superficial knowledge of Andy will be encouraged to read about him, his art, and his era, and will come to recognize the true genius of the man who, more than anyone else, was able to zero-in (for better or worse) on the essence of his times, on who we are and how we’ll be remembered. That’s big. [The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.] July 16-27, 2014. http://beardedladiescabaret.com.