People who hung around Andy Warhol during the days of the Silver Factory studio had a nickname for the famous artist: Drella.
It’s a mix of Cinderella and Dracula, reflecting both Warhol’s ability to make wishes come true and tendency to leave his hangers-on sucked dry of life. He was a cultural vampire -- brilliant, yes, but heavily reliant on the ideas and stimuli of those around him.
Virtually anyone could walk into Warhol’s studio and be invited to take part in one of his art experiments, becoming what he termed superstars. He liked to surround himself with the talented and beautiful, but also severely damaged.
Some people felt they were being exploited, culminating in Valerie Solanas’ attempt on the artist’s life in 1968. It’s against this dark backdrop that “Pop! (Who Shot Andy Warhol?)” takes place, with Factory regulars trying to piece together the answer to the question posed in the show’s title. Well, sort of.
The show starts promisingly, with Warhol wandering the stage singing an ode to an empty paper bag. Like soup cans, Warhol fixated on paper bags, and the song sets up the message that both in his life and work there wasn’t much beneath the exterior.
But the show soon falls apart, and Maggie-Kate Coleman’s book and lyrics aren’t clear in what they actually aspire to become. Is it a whodunit, trying to set up the tension of a mystery by reliving an open-and-shut case? Is it a work critical of Warhol and the way he sidestepped any responsibility to the injured souls he attracted? Or is it a mess, unclear in what it wants to be? My vote is with the latter.
The show isn’t without its merits. As Warhol was attracted to eccentrics, the characters are its strongest feature. A talented cast brings big personalities to life. In both appearance and mannerisms, John Mincks is the spitting image of Warhol. Evan Nasteff and Axle Burtness bring anarchic glee to their roles as Gerard Malanga and Ondine, and Christie Jackson is all fire and brains as Viva.
Grey Garrett is absolutely heartbreaking as Sedgwick when she performs “Paper Doll,” an excellent number that feels as though it belongs in a different musical. Ian Stearns is excellent as Candy Darling, the hilarious and brutally honest superstar who won’t let Warhol shirk from the problems he’s created.
But the highlight of the evening is Audra Honaker as Solanas, singing the show-stopping “Big Gun.” That number should end the show, but instead it’s followed by “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.” It’s only here, the last number, where we start to hear Warhol’s side of things -- too late to build any real drama.
In the fourth-ever production of this show, Jase Smith’s direction needs focus. The show’s tone jumps from full-out parody to sentimentality. Video projections are used unevenly -- as backdrop, interactions with actors and to push the plot forward -- making them a distraction. Leilani Giles’ musical direction does good work with Anna K. Jacobs’ score, and the live band keeps up with the action. Starrene Foster’s inventive choreography accompanies the action well, and Margarette Joyner’s costumes fit the characters perfectly, from Sedgwick’s “poor little rich girl” party dress to Viva’s ’60s-inspired getup. Edwin Slipek’s industrial set design works as the Silver Factory, but the raised balcony could use a more severe angle for audience members sitting stage right (Slipek is a senior contributing editor at Style Weekly).
After the attempt on his life, Warhol limited his accessibility and focused on entrepreneurial success. The Silver Factory existed as a kind of live art piece directed by Warhol, but his inability or unwillingness to impose structure had grave consequences. Maybe that’s what the musical is trying to impart through its lack of structure, but that isn’t satisfying theater.“Pop! (Who Shot Andy Warhol?)” plays through Aug. 10 at Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St. For information visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.