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ANDY: A Popera

Opera Philadelphia

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John Jarboe's production of Andy: A Popera at a box factory on Philadelphia's North American Street
© Dominic M. Mercier
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Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) with Andy, played by Mary Tuomanen
© Dominic M. Mercier
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Sean Lally as Joe D’Alessandro, a Warhol Superstar who dresses as a banana
© Dominic M. Mercier

On September 10, Opera Philadelphia went “Fringe Festival” with the world premiere of Andy: A Popera, a long-gestating co-production with the local new-cabaret troupe The Bearded Ladies, led by John Jarboe. The work — more music theater than traditional or even untraditional opera — explores the ethos, rather than the life, of Andy Warhol, a Pennsylvanian who received his first-ever museum show in Philadelphia in 1965. OP achieved a near-sold out run through September 20 and a public certainly skewing younger than usual. The site-specific work, aptly and atmospherically lodged in a rented actual box warehouse on North American Street, and far from the city's tamer cultural hub, scarcely seems likely to have a future, let alone form part of a new operatic repertory. What references to opera and its audience the score and script contained were disappointingly cliché and rather denigratory. But the project was great fun as a sunny commodification of a Factory-style “happening.” It enabled The Bearded Ladies to work beyond their usual budget — plus doubtlessly brought Opera Philadelphia some artistic street cred in the city's vibrant and mercifully scruffy theatrical community. Jarboe's staging proved consistently creative, dynamic and visually compelling. The many witty songs by co-composers Heath Allen and Dan Visconti achieved a pleasing flow, particularly in Act I. The score contained just one embedded number, 1963's “Sally Go 'Round the Roses,” mistitled in press materials. From the viola, Melissa Dunphy led a spirited band also encompassing bass, drums, guitar and keyboard (manned by Allen).

The casting of “Andrei” (the future Andy) with pure-toned, likable and nuanced Mary Tuomanen was fortuitous; Malgorzata Kasprzycka proved appealing and amusing in an Andrea-Martin-as-Edith-Prickly way as his mother Julia, yet her words were sometimes covered by the orchestra. An episode giving her the chance to recall her childhood in Slovakia lacked musical impact. The various iconic “superstars” trouvés were aptly embodied by theater actors who sang backed up by a flexible, theatrically game and more consistently sonorous chorus of a dozen Opera Philadelphia choristers. The script was developed by Jarboe in association with Sean Lally, who also channeled a louchely sexy, fatuously slow-witted Joe D’Alessandro. Jarboe and Lally’s writing is very smart, though structurally the action went on too long in nearly every scene, particularly in Act II. This Act began with a lame, sustained attempt by would-be assassin Valerie Solanas — a deliberately jarring turn by Kate Raines, with wandering pitch and accent — to supplant Warhol and take over the production at gunpoint. We witnessed the not entirely welcome return of doomed trans superstar Candy Darling (Scott McPheeters) to supervise a more theatrical version of her death, which one had somewhat guiltily welcomed at the first half's close. McPheeters moved and spoke beautifully, but the script and staging's whole treatment of the character seemed unduly maudlin in the acerbic context of the rest. A word also for Kristen Bailey's sangfroid as the daffily self-confident Edie Sedgwick. The ensemble looked pretty astonishing, thanks to Rebecca Kanach (costumes) and Rachael Geier (wigs). Jorge Cousineau's prepared video was excellently integrated, though those videos made during the show (some wittily giving audience members their fifteen seconds of fame), were technically less assured. Deliberate anachronisms in the text (Beyoncé, SnapChat) evoked thematics of image and replication, providing an overall ironic-yet-fond angle on the solipsistic dangers of today's selfie culture.

For Opera Philadelphia, the takeaway from this most enjoyable if inevitably ephemeral collaboration would seem a matter of branding rather than substance: a perfect Warholian effect. —David Shengold 

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