Operatoonity.com review: Andy: A Popera, an Opera Philadelphia Showcase presented by Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe
Live performance: Saturday, September 20, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
Fringe Festival, 1526 North American Street, Philadelphia
Music: Heath Allen & Dan Visconti
Libretto: John Jarboe in development with Sean Lally & ensemble
4.5 out of 5.0 stars
Andrei portrayed by Mary Tuomanen becomes Andy Warhol | photograph Dominic M. Mercier
Who knew a great yoga class could do more than increase your strength and flexibility? Apparently, a particularly bone-crushing class inspired an artistic partnership between senior managers at Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe. The end result? Andy: A Popera–an original and provocative exploration into the life of the godfather of pop art offered up for the 2015 Philly Fringe Festival.
The evening began in an art gallery adjacent to the warehouse performance space called Bahdeebahdu. Preshow festivities included dressing up as a Campbell’s Soup can (#iamasoupcan), enjoying the Bearded Ladies’ refreshing party punch, and eyeing hulking chandeliers crafted from found materials. The preshow was a window into what was to come–a hedonistic and provocative night of popera, full of surprises.
At the preshow, bohemian guests mingled with other audience members. These bohemians eventually became characters in the popera, which was totally fitting. Even as audience members, they possessed an I’m-extra-special quality that would have attracted someone like Andy Warhol, who developed a love affair with celebrity culture.
The band wore boxes on their heads as the audience entered the warehouse littered with boxes. Young Andy crawled out of box to start the show, a box symbolizing his extreme introversion and his being sheltered due to a rare childhood disease called chorea.
Mary Tuomanen as Andrei and his over protective Slovakian mother Julia played by Malgorzata Kasprzycka | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
On page 11 of the program, the audience is explicitly warned about interactive nature of the show, that by the act of attending, one consents to being filmed and photographed. Several people in the audience got their 15 minutes of fame as the result of being filmed and broadcast on the large overhead screen or pulled onto stage.
While the popera unfurled itself in a warehouse converted to a theatre for the occasion, we were simultaneously introduced to many other Andy’s sung by the well-trained Opera Phila chorus members as well as the flamboyant “stars” of Warhol’s famous “Factory” productions.
Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) creates several replicas of himself, known as Andy | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Composers Allen and Visconti created a vehicle which effectively showcased the cabaret voices of The Bearded Ladies as well as the glorious operatic tones of Opera Philadelphia singers. Part exploration, part clever homage, part burlesque, Andy: A Popera reminded me of the sensational contemporary opera Anna Nicole, which is also a biopic of a highly dysfunctional American blonde freak of nature. (Hint: Would LOVE to see Anna Nicole come to Philly, too.)
Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) and Andy (Mary Tuomanen) | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Actor/playwright Mary Tuomanen was extraordinary as Andrei and later Andy. She conveyed a naturalness portraying and singing Andy that seemed to suggest Andy was born for the life he led–an authentic artist whose individuality couldn’t be dimmed by societal strictures. Tuomanen and Kristen Bailey as Superstar Edie had a superstar turn atop a hightop cardboard box in Act 1.
Another highlight of Act I was the scene Marilyn’s Baptism by Paint, devoted to Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych of 50 photos showing Marilyn Monroe as not just sex symbol but as a person.
Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych
While critics might claim that anyone can create pop art like the Marilyn Diptych, the point Andy: A Popera makes is that only one person did, and Warhol changed the landscape of art as a result. An homage to the work featured a musical rainbow of Marilyns singing and prancing about on the stage.
Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith) | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Actor Sean Lally had his fifteen minutes of fame as Joseph the ecdysiast, who is outfitted with a banana costume as part of Andy’s entourage before he peels it all off. (And I do mean all.) While his physique and performance certainly inspired, he is also deserving of praise for his meaningful work as co-librettist with John Jarboe. What a richly textured and deeply-layered work from which one emerges with new or renewed understanding of Andy Warhol and the pop art revolution!
Joe (Sean Lally) is a Warhol Superstar who dresses as a banana | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Top performance honors must be awarded to Scott McPheeters portraying the drag queen Candy. Sometimes Candy sang her own numbers and sometimes she was voiced by Opera Phila sopranos. Every moment McPheeters was on stage was electrified by his presence.
Candy (Scott McPheeters) performs her big Death Scene | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Candy’s Death Scene was a tour de force. Bravo, McPheeters. Brava, Candy.
One of the opera’s most grating characters was Valerie Solanas played by Kate Raines. Valerie was a radical feminist who published the SCUM MANIFESTO, and who shot and nearly killed Andy for misplacing one of the scripts in 1968. Raines played her as a paranoid schizophrenic without apology, which resulted in the audience growing tired of her, as perhaps Warhol and his entourage did. No song stylist, her numbers were difficult to listen to, becoming more strident as her paranoia increased. Her second act departure was welcomed.
Val (Kate Raines) hijacks the Popera to perform her own opera | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier
Sadly even Andy’s mother Julia Warhola eventually demands her fifteen minutes of fame in Act II, while Andy recovers from the shooting, a la Mama Rose in Gypsy.
The popera ellipsed Andy’s career a bit too aggressively in the 70s, quickly advancing to his death in the 80s. The program notes that the two companies collaborated on the show for two years, releasing it in bits and pieces. While the show ran long, the second act was underdeveloped compared to the first. Perhaps more Act II and less Act I would give the show more dramatic balance.
Andy: A Popera forced Opera Phila and The Bearded Ladies to create art together in a new way. The Philly Fringe and the arts landscape is richer for this spirited collaboration. While social media, it seems, can cough up 15 minutes of fame for almost anyone, this show reminds us that Andy Warhol did it a time well before our current intoxication with celebrity culture.
I raise a Dixie cup of vodka, cranberry juice, and Tang to Andy: A Popera. It’s not every day that the audience gets to wear a soup can, process through a giant vagina, or witness full frontal nudity in the name of opera. Bring on Anna Nicole.