Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret present ANDY: A Popera
Donald reviews the official world premiere of ANDY: A Popera, which presents a lively take on Andy Warhol's life, and meshes opera, art, and cabaret. -- Artblog editor

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What happens when an artist’s art becomes more than just that? What are you to do when your art is now a manufactured brand? These are some of the questions that Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret’s world premiere of ANDY: A Popera (also part of the 2015 Fringe Arts Festival) asks the audience head-on.

As the audience walks in to take their seats, we see a giant box on the stage. The box soon speaks to us saying, “Open me.” Then all of a sudden, the sides of the box slowly but powerfully fall off one by one. When the front side of the box falls down (mere feet from the audience in a cool stage effect), someone’s program flies along with it, much to my amusement. Once that box comes apart, we see a normal-sized box, which speaks with another voice. This voice is Andrei (little Andy Warhol), with a camera pointing at audience members throughout the entire warehouse and talking to them.

Quirk detracts from quality

Performers in costume
Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith). Photo courtesy of Dominic M. Mercier.

ANDY is inspired by the life, fame, and philosophy of Andy Warhol–looking deep into the difference between what is commercial in comparison to what is innovative. Throughout the show, we are greeted by singing soup cans, Marilyns of different shades and colors, a banana (who was wonderful comic relief) and some important figures in Warhol’s life that include Valerie Solanas, Candy Darling, and Edie Sedgwick.

The peculiar thing missing from this production was that the pop singing and opera singing were so under-sung that to a point, there wasn’t a great deal of vocal beauty on the level you would come to expect from an opera company at the high caliber of Opera Philadelphia. It doesn’t help that the musical score isn’t striking or memorable on the level of Warhol’s personality.

The production’s singing voices weren’t singing in their true instruments; they instead projected the odd, quirky character voices that you find in a Fringe Festival show. The thing, though, is that this is more than just a typical Fringe Festival show– this is a Opera Philadelphia production and that alone should elevate it. Pop and classical singing (and every other genre, for that matter) should be displayed at their highest order and not be sacrificed for entertainment value, even if the quality of pop singing today is few and far between the prime days of powerhouse vocalists like Whitney Houston and Eddie Mercury.

Performers on stage
Andrei’s image is captured by all of the Andy replicas during the Death Set. Photo courtesy of Dominic M. Mercier.

The watchers get watched

At intermission, the audience was advised to go to a fly art gallery next door called Bahdeebahdu for drinks and light refreshments. When the second act was about to begin, we were taken through the backstage entrance onto the stage before going to our seats. As we walked on the stage, we were filmed, and then saw the film projected on a big screen in the second act. This in turn added to the experience, as the audience felt they played a part (albeit small) in Warhol’s art.

Performers on stage
Andy is still very much alive! Photo courtesy of Dominic M. Mercier.

Valerie Solanas (played by Kathryn Raines) took over the second act of ANDY, and was probably the least interesting aspect of the show. I found her timing to be off, especially when compared to Jenn Kidwell’s biting portrayal of Solanas in the workshop performance of ANDY in July of last year. Andy disappears into the background in the second act, which as a result gave the 40-minute second act less substance–ANDY really should have been a one-act performance.

What I found missing in last year’s workshop of ANDY was a sense of an overall arc; in all fairness to that workshop, it was a combination of scenes from the cast’s  pop-up performances in various areas of Philadelphia. Even though Heath Allen and Dan Visconti’s musical score sags the production, the clever pop culture references and production value kept the show entertaining, at the least. The line that gave me the biggest kick was “Art is great because great men have told us so.”

Scott McPheeteers performing
Candy (Scott McPheeters) sings atop three of the Andy replicas (David Young Koh, Steven Williamson, and Jackson Williams). Photo courtesy of Dominic M. Mercier.

If anything, this production should encourage other opera companies to take more risks with complex material and integrate it into their local communities, which Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret have done in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. It was great to experience this show as a tribute to the man, myth, and legend that is Andy Warhol. After all, as Warhol once said, “I don’t think people die–they just go to department stores.”

ANDY: A Popera ran from September 10-20, 2015. For more information on Opera Philadelphia, visit operaphila.org and for more information on the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, visit beardedladiescabaret.com.

Tags

2015 philadelphia fringe festival, arts & culture, opera philadelphia, philadelphia, the bearded ladies

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