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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Andy: A Popera — Bearded Ladies Company at the Wilma

untitled (72)Andy Warhol’s fame has lasted far more than 15 minutes, and in “Andy: A Popera,” fictional professor and lecturer, Dr. Peter P. Never has been obsessed with the seminal pop artist for decades.

Never, played with focused intensity and heightened enthusiasm by Sean Lally, goes so far as to say he would like to marry the late Mr. Warhol. Of course, he also asks what the artist was trying to do with his Campbell soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Elizabeth Taylor prints, and glamorous lifestyle. He wonders if all Warhol accomplished amounts to nothing. He even asks members of the Bearded Ladies audience at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater what they think Warhol had in mind with his soup cans and Marilyns and how the artist got “so big.” They give amorphous answers that Never declares brilliant while saying the auditor’s ideas gibe with his own.

It’s all very precious. Writer-director John Jarboe, in collaboration with Lally and the Bearded Ladies company, has some wonderful visual ideas — Campbell soup cans that are cut partially open at the bottom, so the lower seal can be used as a jaw and lined with fabric to look like tongues that make the cans appear to be talking and singing; paint cans spewing quarter-inch cellophane ribbons of the glossy colors Warhol uses prominently in his silk screens; a chorus of singers wearing the famous subway grate dress from “Seven Year Itch” and donning paper cut-outs of Marilyn’s hairdo in different colors, as if Warhol block printed them; a quartet of Elvises twitching like mad as they launch into “All Shook Up;” an array of paper and metal penises that serve as a propos props for a song from Candy Darling; mirror masks for various characters like Darling, Warhol’s mother, Edie Sedgwick, and Valerie Solanas, actress Kristen Bailey bearing a scarily close resemblance to Sedgwick; lavender latex gloves for handling Warhol’s discovered possessions among them — and they come up with a zany line or six.

Such creative inspiration cannot hide that “Andy: A Popera,” the second developmental staging of a work with music and some original lyrics by Heath Allen, is what Bearded Ladies and Opera Philadelphia have billed it, a work in progress.

Lally’s performance may be focused, but his and Jarboe’s script is not. It takes myriad turns in an effort to find a core or a theme that will sustain action or move it forward. Several sequences die on the vine or don’t go past a snappy introduction and a well-crafted pun or two. Jokes often play as self-conscious and gimmicky. Jarboe, Lally, and troupe haven’t totally married the sequences that work with those that seem incomplete or fall flat. They haven’t harnessed their material so it flows evenly or leads neatly, or even naughtily, from one passage to another.

The writers know their Warhol. Professor Never quotes his commentary on the equality of a bottle of Coca-Cola, how the bottle doesn’t know or care who buys it, and the drink is the same whether it’s drunk by Elizabeth Taylor, a bum on the street, or you. The title of Never’s program refers to a Velvet Underground song by Lou Reed that says you get your best reflection by looking at other people. Transsexual Candy Darling is played by a man who sparklingly conveys androgyny. Julia Warhola is a doting mother who instills habits that Andy will have through life. Music and performance art are shown, by varying example, to be the integral parts of Warhol’s life and work they were. An operatic chorus gets to the core of pop art by singing the ingredients that appear on the labels of several favorite Campbell soup products.

I never knew celery was such a consistent ingredient in Campbell soup recipes.

Smart ideas are rampant. They need to be polished and given a less haphazard, just-now improvised look.

The parts that work best are often set pieces such as the singing cans or the arrival of the box with Warhol’s possessions.

Some musical numbers also have the patina of being finished, so Bailey can pace and get the most from her passage as Edie Sedgwick, Scott McPheeters can score as an attention-needing Candy Darling, Liz Filios can garner laughs as Warhol’s mother, Julia Warhola, and Jennifer Kidwell can firmly dominate the house as an angry, man-hating, candid, and cantankerous Valerie Solanas who has no compunctions about bringing her SCUM manifesto or contempt for Warhol to the stage.

Going through her Solanas riff or singing her character’s number, “Squishy Ass,” a reference to Warhol’s butt, Kidwell fills the Wilma lobby with power and emotional honesty that is missing from the rest of “Andy.”

An operatic ensemble, made up of soprano Lucy Dhegrae, alto Karina Sweeney, tenor William Lim, and baritone-bass John Miles, produces glorious harmonies but, beyond the ingredient sequence and variations on Walhol’s familiar reaction, “Wow,” has little effect on the “popera’s” entertainment value or success. The men’s daisy printed shirts, designed by Rebecca Kanach, are a witty touch, and Dhegrae and Sweeney look good in a more subtle daisy pattern.

In general, “Andy” indulges in Warhol-like superficiality by offering a visual and burlesque taste of Warhol’s world but little perceptive insight into Warhol, the Factory, or his coterie. It also questions but doesn’t delve all that deeply into the basis for Warhol’s fame and popularity, which I chalk up to canny creativity, a sense of fun, good draftsmanship, nervy marketing and setting a hip social pace.

I understand that “Andy” is a spoof and that part of the joke is Never’s inability to come to conclusions, but Jarboe and Lally have to consider how to give their work more substance and more graceful continuity. The writers may be out to provide fun and a smattering of random laughs and strong images, but their approach is too unformed and helter-skelter, the opposite of Warhol’s craftsmanlike meticulousness.

No one is expecting or particularly desiring the well-made play, but “Andy” would benefit from being less ragged and more pointed, as it when Kidwell so thoroughly commands the stage or Bailey entertains with her riff.

Lally’s character Peter P. Never — Intellectualizing, I’m guessing the P. stands for Pan indicating someone who will never mature, and never find what he seeks from his study of Warhol — mentions at the beginning of the “popera” that he is a discredited professor who has been banned or rejected from speaking at just about every institution of higher learning, including Philadelphia’s Community College, because of the compulsive nature he’s displayed while pursuing and revealing his Warhol studies. In spite of his having degrees issued by Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, and the Sorbonne, he is relegated to present his Warhol lecture, “I’ll Be YOUR Mirror” (the YOUR capitalized in the Bearded Ladies program), at the remote and not particularly prestigious East North Dakota State University.

He is grateful for the booking and keeps thanking the audience for facilitating it. He is also more than an bit befuddled and disorganized, Jarboe and Lally lampooning the scholar who may have done research and might have a lot to say but, when given the chance to speak, has nothing to offer. Less even that it seems Never believes Warhol had to offer.

Lally, coming off a recent triumph as the title character in Romulus Linney’s “Gint” for EgoPo, shows his acting range by being as weak and effete as Peter P. Never as he was strong, sexy, and resourceful as Peter Gint. Looking professorish in his gray suit, French blue shirt, and conservative tie, Lally’s Never plays at being authoritative but is really disorganized and rambling in his lecture. He tries to create mystery when he reveals the box with Warhol’s soup can, lollipop, and other signature accoutrements, but the box and its contents never really capture the audience’s curiosity, and the gambit flops. So does putting specimens from Warhol’s life in plastic bags and storing them in a refrigerator as if they were valuable lab experiments.

Never gets little result or comedy from asking questions to the audience. The hapless souls selected to be quizzed about why Warhol chose a soup can or Marilyn Monroe for subject look as if they either have to come up with something funny or sincerely serious as a response. Since Lally’s Never is only going to agree with them and praise their perspicacity as being equal to his, the bit doesn’t play as comedy or theater. At best, it’s another send-up of academia and the kind of academics who receive grants to examine topics that aren’t worth the study or that they can’t handle.

“Andy” makes stabs at lampooning pop culture and the atmosphere that makes self-promoters and non-conformists like Warhol, Darling, and Sedgwick into celebrities when at least two of them show few signs of talent.

Darling and Sedgwick presage today’s lionizing of people with little or no concrete claim to attention, like the Kardashians, Honey Boo Boo, or the Real Housewives of Anywhere. Jarboe and Lally may be aiming to make that point, but they have to work harder to establish it (unless I’m intellectualizing again, and it’s not their aim or anywhere near it).

Warhol is a different matter. He touched a chord with collectors and consumers who found his work fun and his industry exceptional. He’s like Yoko Ono and other artists of the ’60s who made what they said was art and found customers who believed them. Warhol was right. He was an artist. He was productive. He had purpose. He made something real and had fun in his Factory and at the parties and clubs to which he brought celebrity. He and his followers were originals and one of a kind, manufacturers of their own image who took pride in their wit as opposed to being conspicuous consumers who parade their lives before TV cameras.

Claire, one of the audience members Lally polls as Never, mentioned “iconization.” Warhol is a master at recognizing and exploiting icons. His idea for painting a common object found in most American homes of the ’60s and making series of prints of major stars of the time is a witty one. Warhol created both a joke and a tribute, each of which lasts to this day, as evidenced by the artist’s continued fame and the welcome his work gets from major art museums throughout the world, including museums devoted to his creations in Pittsburgh and Prague.

Rather than having Never be a complete and unmitigated buffoon, perhaps Jarboe and Lally can endow him with some perception that at least gives Warhol some credit as an innovator and one who attracted others to his milieu. The man was a knave of sorts, but he was an inventive, creative, industrious one. He thought of the images he peddled, and they found a permanent and appreciative audience.

The shrewdness of Warhol’s choices of subjects and of artistic associates and hangers-on is acknowledged in some of “Andy’s” skits. Whether the characters were worthy or not, Warhol made them into the glamorati and luminati of a period that was ripe — Warhol had excellent timing — for their personal and ego-driven styles. They were animated soup cans and living Marilyns even if they weren’t nearly as authentic or fulfilling as the originals.

Like soup cans, many did not have a long shelf life. None lived to be 60. Sedgwick and Darling don’t make it to 30.

“Andy” impresses, but it also bores. It tries too hard, and it takes the distinct, isolated, and inviting turns of Bailey and Kidwell to provide the audience with any genuine sequences of sustained entertainment.

Lally is also admirable. His benightedness disguised as authority is conveyed with the perfect level of conviction to make it humorous and Never a welcome character.

Lally amuses in scenes in which he holds forth with an unwitting charlatan’s ease and in which he acts in desperation to regain control of his lecture and to prove he might have a clue about a subject on which he purports to be an expert. He is adept at acting as a man in a dither and as the kind of a speaker that spouts information that pleases him without much sense or regard for how it grabs the audience.

Lally seems to enjoy the physical part of his performance, wearing a big smile as he is rotated through the air by his castmates.

Liz Filios is funny as Julia, who doesn’t mind intruding to offer a biographical fact about Andy’s life.

Kristen Bailey has a stand-up comic’s timing and a winning way of presenting her monologue as Edie Sedgwick, draped in leopard and looking oh so pert and beautiful. Bailey has a fine soprano voice but strains in singing one of several pop hits in “Andy,” The Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” converted for “Andy’s” purposes to “He’s Not There.”

Jennifer Kidwell galvanizes the room with her truculent, no-nonsense Valerie Solanas. Even when playing one of the Marilyns, Kidwell takes focus. She is best at finding the pith in her lines and delivering her speeches with intensity. You feel Solanas’s rage through Kidwell. She’s threatening enough for you to take her seriously when she points at you and scolds you for not keeping up with moments of audience participation. Her fierceness gives “Andy” its first really big and engrossing moments.

Scott McPheeters is an ephemeral Candy Darling who constantly invites the audience to witness her death, one which, in real life, was drug induced but most likely unintentional in terms of suicide. McPheeters seems to revel in his gossamer cape that is Candy’s only costume besides tight, short shorts.

The entire operatic chorus sings beautifully.

Heath Allen’s music is very much in the spirit of the 1960’s. It tends towards the toneless and works well in recitative. Composers from Jule Styne to David Bowie and Lou Reed are represented in a wide selection of pop tunes. some adapted to provide a satiric or commentating meaning. Allen wrote the smart lyrics to “Edie’s Double Edge.” Other lyrics come from poetry by Liz Worth.

Oona Curley created a Warholian world of white by coating regular hinged screen in a bright vinyl. The screens work well in various ways, opening to hide and reveal people and as pieces that frame or from which to hang something.

From Edie’s fur to the Marilyn gowns and the near nudity of McPheeters as Darling, Rebecca Kanach clothed the “Andy” cast prettily and wittily. I loved the daisy print shirts for the male chorus, but I think my favorite choice was the simplest, the black and white patterned house dress Filios wears as Julia.

“Andy” needs sharpening. As I think back on sequence after sequence, Jarboe, Lally, and their Bearded Ladies colleagues have come up with a lot that amuses and that harkens back to the genius being celebrated(?). For all of the cleverness and effort to pay off, Jarboe and Lally have to think about making some elements more taut and presentational. Lally, in particular, should be kinder to himself and think of ways to make Dr, Peter P. Never register more dimensionally. The creative team has time to work because the program clearly states the performance is the second in a three-stage development process.

“Andy: A Popera” is a production of The Bearded Ladies Company in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and runs through Sunday, July 27 in the lobby of the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and Sunday and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $25 for a cabaret table to $20 for general admission. Students with ID get a deep discount ($10). They can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or at the door. More information is available at http://www.beardedladiescabaret.com.

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