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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
ANDY: A Popera
When The Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia merged their disciplines to create this performance piece, they surely did it with a third consideration in mind: WWAD (What would Andy do?) In his introduction, Bearded Ladies director (and libretto writer), John Jarboe, encourages the audience to take selfies during the show: Very Warhol.
After a gigantic box in the middle of the performance space is opened, and box shapes and large screens discovered inside, are moved away, a simple cardboard box is left. Hands holding a small video camera stick out of the top of the box. The hands turn out to be Warhol's. A large screen suspended way overhead shows that his little camera is taking videos of the audience, and of himself.
At first he's Andrei Warhola. And although his dear immigrant mother looms large in his life, he recreates himself as Andy, someone bigger, someone American. Associating "American" with Coke (a cola, that is). Andrei sings "I can be coke too. I can be two."Mary Tuomanen, looking boyish as Andrei, employs Andy's characteristic hand to face gesture and his shy greeting of, "Hi." Andrei transforms into Andy, becoming an idea, an image, multiples. Eventually there are maybe a dozen singing Andys in wigs, sometimes wearing sunglasses. Not standing in rows like a chorus, they sing from anywhere, including the audience area. The Factory comes to life with people, music, noise, video, and Warhol's signature silver balloons.
A singer wearing a soup can suit that's pretty fancy for stripped down pop art, sings about being reconstituted. There's a Brillo box and an Elvis. Female and male Marilyns, platinum blondes in silver and white, start to come in colors. Andrei says, "You were just a picture of a dead woman. Now, you're art! My art." Marilyns are commodities: repeatable, saleable art. Sometimes Marilyns and Andys sing Warhol aphorisms, sometimes nonsense.
Scott McPheeters, heartbreaking as sad, self-doubting, transgendered Candy Darling, sings about being a bird with bright pink feathers who lives outside the lines. (Actually Candy lip synchs as an Andy (Montalbano) sings for her.) Andrei and the Andys re-create Candy as a Superstar, and partying ensues. Future Superstars Edie and Joe, and villain Val join the party from "the audience."Edie feels like nothing: "All by myself, I'd probably disappear."Joe (co-libretto writer Sean Lally), dressed as a banana, gets uh, exposed, and way out of hand. Kate Raines is the infamous Valerie, who in real life shot and seriously wounded Andy. Val claims that she wrote herself into this opera with a gun. After intermission she takes over, and the dark side runs things for a while. The second half gets sad and kind of long, and somehow images of manic action and hysteria compose into still-life moments.
While it refers back to the 60s, this out-there collaborative performance feels new and experimental. Yet its aims might be traced waaay back before Warhol to grand old visionaries like Appia and Wagner, who long ago promoted a vibrant unity in the arts. Sophisticated video designed by Jorge Cousineau ramps up the live theater experience. Pre-recorded video, often matched to live stage performance, alternates with live video. Something crazy is always going on in this contemplation.
The band tackles all kinds of music. And the massive space fills with the stunning operatic sound of the Opera Philadelphia chorus as the intricate, repetitive libretto is sung by gorgeous, almost other-worldly voices in soaring harmonies. ANDY: A Popera is something very special. Its all-out artistry is the result of a true collaborative effort. If only this production could be extended so that more people could have an exhilarating experience.