Moths Drawn to a Passive Flame
By David A. Rosenberg
Maybe 15 minutes of fame is enough. In the sometimes exciting, sometimes languorous new musical, “Pop!” at Yale Rep, the moths around Andy Warhol’s flame get burned to a crisp while their guru passively sits and watches the freaky parade of glam-rocking wannabes. With its eclectic score that riffs on Gilbert & Sullivan, Kurt Weill and, of course, Stephen Sondheim, its amusing dialogue, its talented seven-person cast and its colorful sets and costumes, the show ably captures the “murder, intrigue, debauchery, parties, drugs, sex, glamour and superstars” that surrounded the artist. (No, dear, it’s not for the kiddies.)
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Junkies and Whores, Artists and Freaks,” begins narrator Candy Darling, brilliantly embodied by Brian Charles Rooney. His depiction of the famous transsexual is eerily on target. The scale-riding voice, the slightly off-kilter stances and the fierce dedication that draw her into Warhol’s world while letting her observe from a distance are miraculous.
On the surface, as a spoof of all those private dick movies, Candy’s role is to discover who shot the platinum-haired Warhol. (Someone really did, not on “a dark and stormy night” but during the day of June 3, 1968.) He was seriously wounded but recovered and lived until 1987. The would-be assassin’s identity is no secret. It was Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist who accused Warhol of purposely misplacing a script she had given him to read.
But it might have been any number of the other moths, all of whom, according to “Pop,” wanted recognition, even money from the reclusive Warhol. It might have been Edie Sedgwick, the spoiled rich girl who talked like Shirley Temple. Or the bright and vulgar Viva. Or hangers-on like high-strung Ondine or whip-wielding Gerard Malanga. Or even Candy herself.
Concentrating on the leeches, “Pop” doesn’t have much time for exploring Warhol the artist. But there is a sequence in which the pop artist ridicules abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. The evening also has time for a mock funeral, complete with fake pope and keening mother. (Warhol was and remained a practicing Byzantine Catholic.)
But the main thrust is its recreation of life at the Factory, which is what Warhol’s studio was called. Maggie-Kate Coleman’s book and lyrics, and Anna K. Jacobs’ music are lively, sometimes lovely and certainly varied. When Edie sings, “My little Quaaludes are my only joy” or Viva and Edie appear as “syphilis-ridden drag queens” or Andy himself sings, “You can fill a paper bag with nothing / Fill it up with your art / Fill it up with yourself,” the show acquires an undeniable energy.
Randy Harrison has just the right hauteur as the strange creature that became the self-promoting Warhol. Doug Kreeger’s Ondine is well along in pill-popping eccentricity, while Danny Binstock flits throughout like some sort of vengeful Norn. Emily Swallow’s Viva is funny and sexy while Leslie Kritzer’s Valerie is the kind of one-track radical you never want to bump into.
Mark Brokaw’s direction cleverly spills the action out from the confines of the Factory itself, which is brightly designed by Valérie Thérèse Bart and lit by Kevin Adams. Ying Song’s appropriately tacky costumes and Lynne Shankel’s music direction, plus her six-piece band, help make this a first-class production.
Although even at 100 minutes it goes on too long, “Pop” is swift and vigorous but probably not ready for Broadway. As Candy Darling puts it, “When they tell you that they love you / You can tell it’s all a lie / They can’t wait to rise above you / As you fall from Andy’s sky.”
This review originally appeared in The Hour on Dec. 10.