How do you make a musical out of an empty paper bag? If you’re composer Anna K. Jacobs and lyricist/book writer Maggie-Kate Coleman you fill it with glamour, wit, intrigue, sex and several pistols. After all, you have the shooting of pop artist Andy Warhol as the subject matter, his ’60s Factory downtown studio as the setting and celebrity as the theme.
Receiving its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, “Pop!” is vibrant, satirical and a hell of a lot of fun, making it a hot candidate to transfer to a Gotham run on the story’s home turf. Though its self-fabulousness may be off-putting to some, the show should attract contempo auds looking for something hip, fresh and slightly outrageous. “It’s no ‘Rigoletto,’?” as Factory cohort Ondine (Doug Kreeger) says after feminist revolutionary Valerie Solanis (Leslie Kritzer) sings “Up Your Ass.”
The show is set entirely in the mind of Warhol the moment he is shot in 1968 in his New York loft, which had become the gathering place of downtown denizens, hangers-on and fashionable druggies, dragsters and artiste wannabes who see their own flash of fame reflected in Andy.
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Show opens with a bang, followed by an especially dazed Andy (played with terrific comic coolness by Randy Harrison) remarking with more curiosity than pain, “Ouch.” Andy rises from the ground, takes a piece of chalk and draws a victim outline around where his body fell. Then, in a brilliant gesture that shows how Warhol sees the world — creating art out of the commonplace — he signs it.
Andy wants to know who shot him, but as is his method, he lets others do the work. Candy Darling (Brian Charles Rooney) acts as host of this pop quiz as he presents three principal suspects: house intellectual Viva (Emily Swallow), spoiled rich girl Edie Sedgwick (Cristen Paige) and Solanis. The investigation is assisted by Factory social secretary Ondine and jack-of-all-trades Gerard Malanga (Danny Binstock).
For much of the show, the musical thrives in this surreal state of limbo, a fitting setting where Jacobs’ constantly entertaining and eclectic pop score is free to roam a wide range of styles, including commercial jingles, game-show themes, klezmer, rap, power blues and even an oom-pah-pah ditty. It’s a dynamic and accessible score with smart and funny lyrics by Coleman, wonderfully supported by Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations, Lynne Shankel’s music direction and a six-piece band that makes the score sizzle.
But there are times when the music strays off its original path. There are echoes of veteran songwriters, sometimes as homage, sometimes less so, such as Andy’s solo late in the show, “Still Life,” sung beautifully by Harrison but too reminiscent of Bobby’s climactic self-defining moment in “Company,” without the yearning. More troubling is opening number “Paper Bag,” whose catchy melody — used as the show’s refrain — recalls Kander and Ebb’s “The Grass Is Always Greener” from “Woman of the Year.”
Still, the overall score attests to a team of talented songwriters whose original work is performed with Factory precision and presence by an outstanding seven-member ensemble.
Musical highlights include Edie’s ballad “Paper Dolls,” delivered with genuine star power by Paige; “Candy’s Lament,” from spotlight-grabber Rooney; and Viva’s “The Last Laugh,” with Swallow taking charge and owning the stage. Kritzer’s Valerie nearly stops the show with her second tirade, “Big Gun,” terrifically staged by choreographer Denis Jones, who keeps the musical numbers moving with a heady rush.
Giving the show its high production values are Valerie Therese Bart’s versatile set, which brings function and fun to the Factory, while Ying Song’s bright, witty costumes and Tal Yarden’s projections also pop.
The individual musical turns build toward the diva quartet of “Superstar,” the ultimate “I want” song where Edie, Valerie, Viva and Candy all proclaim their desperate longing to be at the top of this new pop-world totem. After that, conflicts arise as each character comes to realize faux fame is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Trouble is, the narrative has few places to go other than to explore variations on themes of outcast, artistic exploitation and male hierarchy.
But helmer Mark Brokaw keeps things lively and stages the show as a wicked pop vaudeville. In some ways it evokes the presentational style of “Chicago.” But whereas “Chicago” takes a cynical approach to the world of unearned fame, “Pop!” tries to have it both ways, as both celebration and critique, only to end up in an existential standoff between “nothing and something.” In the end, the aud is given its own paper bag and asked to fill it.
Warhol would have loved it. And that’s something.