July 21, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
‘Pop!’ goes the easel

‘Pop!’
Through Aug. 7
The Studio 2ndStage
1501 14th Street, NW
$38-$43
202-332-3300

There’s a happening on 14th Street. It has all the essential ‘60s elements: music, sex, drugs, counterculture sensibility, art, some dancing, and even a cast of Warhol superstars. But be warned — it’s a violent crime scene too.

The Studio 2ndStage’s summer show “Pop!” is a musical mystery that asks not so much who shot Andy Warhol (everyone knows it was radical feminist writer and hanger-on Valerie Solanos who pulled the trigger), but why? Was the non-lethal shooting a random act of craziness or did the seemingly soulless Warhol ask for it? In 90 fast-paced minutes of song, fun, and complaint, we’re asked to figure it out.

An Andy Warhol self portrait. The eccentric late gay artist is the subject of a current Studio Theatre production, ‘Pop!’ (Photo courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh)

Action kicks off interactively, and getting seated is parted of the fun. On entering Studio Stage 4, theatergoers find a party already in progress filled with scenesters (costumed in bell bottoms, fringy vests and mod frocks by Ivania Stack) and a few artists in action. Here a woman paints the inside of a bathtub; across the room, a videographer films a young man in various states of undress. His image is projected largely on a back wall.

Set designer Giorgos Tsappas has morphed the black box venue into a slightly smaller version of Warhol’s legendary Factory (his silver-walled Manhattan studio/party space) with aluminum foil and varied touches of iconography including brightly labeled Brillo boxes and 15 outsized handgun silk screens.

Eventually the milling about ends, the stage lights come up and we meet the famously bewigged Warhol — played with marvelous languor by Tom Story. We learn he has blithely offered each of his minions an empty brown paper lunch bag in lieu of money or contracts (no wonder he was shot). And in response to that shooting, he utters an underwhelming “Ouch,” quickly setting the tone and introducing Warhol in all of his deadpan glory.

Sleuthing begins in earnest when the evening’s hostess — transsexual star Candy Darling (young actor Matthew Delorenzo) — assigns detective duties to Factory factotum Gerard Malanga (Luke Tudball) and opera-loving, speed freak Ondine (Sean-Maurice Lynch) who proceeds to snort up the chalk used to mark where Warhol’s injured body had fallen. While all and sundry are suspect, inspector magnifying glasses are trained on a trio of Factory ladies: beautiful heiress turned junkie, Edie Sedgewick (Marylee Adams); smart, sexy Viva (Deborah Lubega); and finally the fore-mentioned Valerie Solanas (Rachel Zampelli), the proud lesbian author of the SCUM (society for cutting up men) manifesto. Seems each has her reasons to resent Warhol, and all three are called on to express it rather formulaically in song.

The score (played by a terrific six-person band led by Christopher Youstra) makes reference to various musical genres — rock, Latin, vaudeville and Gospel. Highlights include a spot lit Candy Darling singing a lament to her fading star, and the madcap funeral sequence in which the cast dons outré clerical garb and sing long and loud about their injured leader. Even Mama Wahola (the artist’s original surname) makes the scene.

Then there’s “Big Gun,” a rousing disparagement of the male member sung by Solanas backed by Edie and Viva. But what’s missing from the score — considering many of the Factory girls and boys’ prodigious drug habits — is a musical paean to heroine or maybe a zippy patter song about methamphetamine.

Stylishly staged by Studio 2ndStage’s artistic director Keith Alan Barker, the production is a strong collaboration of designers and performers. They’ve recreated a feel for the Factory in a musical theater setting — not easy. But don’t come to “Pop!” expecting to find doppelgangers for coltish Edie, aquiline Viva, and pouty, floppy-haired Melanga, you won’t. Instead you will find an energized, diverse cast of talented actors working looks of their own.

After Warhol’s brush with death, the Factory changed. Things became less sloppy; security was upped — no longer were quirky nonentities allowed in from the street. Warhol changed too. He began to focus even more on making money and cultivated a different crowd, befriending tonier It girls like Bianca Jagger and Lee Radziwill.

We know who shot Andy Warhol. Why still remains a matter of opinion. Solonas the gatecrasher was nuts, but like most of Warhol’s real superstars, she also craved attention and may possibly have felt used by the man who ultimately and unwittingly gave them all fame. In some gray but mostly candy-colored bright tones, this “Pop!” makes revisiting the crime scene fun.

 

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