Tom Story plays Andy Warhol in Pop!, a murder mystery based on the 1968 shooting of the infamous artist. Photograph by Scott Suchman
☆☆☆ stars out of four
Given his fascination with the weird, the wonderful, and the just-plain taboo, there are few things which seem improbable for Andy Warhol to be seen doing. Singing, however, might just be one of them. He may have covered paintings with urine and made cinematic art out of orgies, but musical theater? Not so much. Which is what makes POP!, a murder-mystery musical about Warhol’s 1968 shooting, currently playing at Studio Theatre, seem like such an unlikely premise, particularly when you take into account the fact that most of the audience already knows who the murderer is.
Luckily, our shallow, fame-obsessed society shows no sign of losing interest in Warhol, with two exhibitions of his work scheduled to open in the fall and various people misquoting him every time Rebecca Black’s name comes up. So a musical about his life may be the next logical step, especially when you can cast Warhol’s legendary gang of misfits as supporting characters. Pop!, written by Maggie-Kate Coleman (book and lyrics) and Anna K. Jacobs (music), includes a number of the most intriguing: socialite Edie Sedgwick (Marylee Adams), actress and academic Viva (Deborah Lubega), artist and speed freak Ondine (Sean-Maurice Lynch), radical feminist Valerie Solanas (Rachel Zampelli), and transvestite Candy Darling (the improbably beautiful Matthew DeLorenzo), who plays host to the evening’s festivities. Walking into Giorgos Tsappas’s set, dodging actors on the stairwell and watching models pose and get naked on the stage, it’s all too easy to believe that this is what the Factory kind of, sort of felt like.
Until, that is, Warhol (Tom Story) starts singing. Story is pitch-perfect as the laconic, drawling artist, but even he can’t quite manage to sound blasé while singing the opening number, “Paper Bag.” For the showy, glamorous Candy, belting out lyrics comes much more naturally, making her the perfect emcee as cast members attempt to figure out which one of them shot Warhol, their friend/idol/enabler/oppressor. Although Warhol is present onstage for much of the action, he seems to be stuck in a dream sequence, witnessing the circumstances surrounding his own attempted murder with unwilling (and suitably muted) disbelief.
Coleman, Jacobs, and director Keith Alan Baker have amassed a spectacular amount of detail into 90 minutes, from the paper bag Solanas was seen clutching on the night of the shooting (which features prominently in a prolonged metaphor about emptiness), to the films Warhol made, to the foil lining the walls of the Factory and the silver helium balloons littering the ceiling. And detail is what really makes this musical shine, as when Ondine uses a pill bottle in lieu of maracas, or a Catholic priest in a fake funeral scene swings a Campbell’s soup can full of incense. Different Warhol images are projected onto the wall for different scenes (a needle and a piggy bank for Edie; a gun for Valerie), assigning motifs to characters. And one of the strongest scenes imagines artists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell as ape-like cowboys, playing with paint in the same mindless, robotic fashion with which a dog would play with a chew toy. Creatively, at least, it’s out of the ballpark.
But no matter how historically accurate it is, or how strong the songs are (and some numbers, like “Big Gun” and “99 Superstars” are both catchy and unbelievably inventive), the premise still lacks an ultimate ingredient: suspense. Even without biographical context, it’s clear that the outcast, scruffy, stained sweater-wearing Solanas is the ultimate villain, even as she barely stands out in a room full of obnoxious egos and shameless abusers. Jacobs and Coleman want us to dwell on the superficiality of it all: the empty paper bags, the identical paper dolls dressed up by Warhol, and the “million billion carbon copies turning death into decor.” But the constant creativity on display, from Warhol’s silkscreens to a dance sequence in which the cast combine a funeral with doo-wop, undermines that premise. Or maybe it doesn’t. This is a flashy, spectacular, thoughtful, detailed music about not very much, which makes it probably as accurate a portrayal of the artist himself as we’ll ever see onstage. It may all be a big artistic Ponzi scheme, but it sure can be fun to watch.
Pop! is at Studio Theatre through August 7. Tickets ($38 to $43) available at Studio Theatre’s Web site.