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A&E road trip: Warhol musical "Pop!" at Studio Theatre

August 17, 2011

It’s no secret who shot and wounded Andy Warhol in 1968. But the musical “Pop!”—given an atmospheric production at Washington D.C.’s Studio Theatre—wants us to pretend that there’s a mystery at its story’s core.

“The experience begins on the second floor,” said the greeter in the lobby, but it really began in the stairway leading up from the second floor to the theater. There, actors playing various Warhol hangers-on smoked, groped, and otherwise created the impression that we were entering the world of the artist’s famed Factory. As if in the queue for some bizarre Disney ride, audience members wind past clacking film projectors, multiple period TVs, and a hipster soliciting help in painting names inside a bath tub. After being handed a poster (in lieu of a program), we took seats as a nude (male) photo shoot took place on one side of the stage and the band settled in at the other. Behind the musicians, more Factory denizens lounged on scaffolding.  

One of the dangers of such an in-your-face environmental set-up is that the environment can upstage the show itself. That’s partially the case with “Pop!”. And it’s compounded by our knowledge of the Warhol persona.

Most musicals are built around confessional moments. But Warhol isn’t someone we expect—or buy—offering his inner thoughts in rhymed verses. His reaction to being shot—a fey “Ouch”—seems more authentic then his introspective songs. Having him preside over a no-suspense whodunit might have played out in a more interesting way if the show’s creators had been more out there in their approach. As it stands (and even with some terrific music), too much of “Pop!” comes across as Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” without the distinct character songs or gravitas. Its passive subject resists the transformational cathartic conclusion of more structured musicals and, at the same time, “Pop!” doesn’t have enough of a style all its own to take us into bold new territory.

That’s not to say that there aren’t pleasures in this Sunday in the Factory with Andy. Projections, props, costumes and set are smartly woven together by a top-notch team. Rachel Zampelli proves an intense, creepy Valerie with a knock-out voice. Tom Story is a playful Warhol. And I wanted to see and hear more of fellow suspects Edie (Marylee Adams) and Viva (Deborah Lubega), each of whom gets a solo number but isn't made maximum use of elsewhere. The use of empty paper bags as a self-conscious metaphor throughout the show is inspired and the music and lyrics by Anna K. Jacobs and Maggie-Kate Coleman, wisely avoids reproducing the sounds of the period in favor of a variation of a Kander and Ebb showbiz style, albeit with heavier guitar. The elements are here. The structure isn’t.

Still, I hope to get a chance to hear “Paper Bag,” “Retrospective” and other “Pop!” songs again. And to see how this promising show continues to evolve.

“Pop!” has been extended through Aug. 28. Shows in the upcoming Studio Theatre season include Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art,” Indianapolis-native Lauren Weedman’s latest solo show “Bust,” and the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Details here.

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