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This marvelous new musical about Andy Warhol and his cohorts gets the 1960s just right. logo
Leslie Kritzer and Randy Harrison
in POP!
(© Joan Marcus)
Those of us who came of age in the 1960s tend to believe that few attempts at dramatization do the era justice. It wasn't just a time of passing fashion trends, but a period of mass radicalization. Amazingly, two young women who weren't even born then -- playwright/lyricist Maggie Kate Coleman and composer Anna K. Jacobs -- are right on the money with their musical, POP!, now enjoying its world premiere at Yale Rep.

These clever cultural anthropologists dig deep by focusing on what at the time seemed the most superficial of phenomena: Andy Warhol and his circle of publicity-craving camp followers. The intentionally inarticulate self-styled voyeur, who kept himself at a careful remove from the bacchanales he inspired, turns out to have had extraordinary staying power: whatever the merits of his oeuvre, his place in the artistic pantheon is well fixed. But what of the aspirants in his orbit, who, semi-famous by association, were sucked in and swept along by his laconic mystique? It's on these wanna-bes and somewhat-weres that Coleman and Jacobs turn their sometimes skewering but generally sympathetic gaze.

They take as their jumping-off point a split second on June 3, 1968. Warhol (Randy Harrison, silver-fright-wigged and suitably laid-back, if insufficiently homely) has just been shot by ultra-feminist avenger Valerie Solanas (Leslie Kritzer). As Warhol lies suspended at death's door, into the existential void leaps an ad hoc emcee, the transsexual charmer Candy Darling (Brian Charles Rooney, who's capable of hurling his extraordinary voice several octaves in either direction and here projects just the right degree of cool, soignée bemusement).

What ensues -- all presumably deep within Warhol's unconscous -- is part crime caper, part TV game show, part news report (Darling morphs into Cronkite without changing out of her cocktail dress), and mostly a fanciful yet fairly accurate reconstruction of the Factory scene. And it's all wrapped in hard-charging, harmonically complex song. (For example, Krtizer's Solanas has another concealed weapon in reserve, a knockout eleven o'clock number titled "Big Gun.")

Coleman and Jacobs have clearly done their homework, and have come up with fun, creative ways to put what they've learned across. When Warhol and his cohorts, for instance, invade the Cedar Tavern to confront Pop Art's Abstract Expressionist forebears, the reigning "cowboys of the New York art world," they appear chapped and behatted, with holsters packing paintbrushes. It pays to listen closely for the little lagniappes that Coleman slips into the script, as when she has Jackson Pollock, or rather Edie Sedgwick (Cristen Paige) playing Pollock, pipe up post-melee, "I'll drive!"

Paige aces a Shirley Temple-tinged medley based on Sedgwick's Warhol-bestowed persona as "Poor Little Rich Girl." The soi-disant superstar Viva (sterling-voiced Emily Swallow), determined to stand out as "the smart one," tries to convince herself that she's using Warhol, and not the other way around. Sardonic sidekick Ondine (Doug Kreeger) is wittier still and likewise chafes at his status as unheralded helpmeet, as does the fledgling poet -- but mostly factotum -- Gerard Malanga (Danny Binstock).

All gradually come to the conclusion that the rate of interpersonal exchange is not in their favor: strip away the glamour and status, and in terms of real remuneration they're getting royally screwed. Only Solanas goes to extremes in demanding her due. Eyes voraciously aglitter, Kritzer plays Solanas not as a nutcase but as an ambitious outsider trying to claw her way into some magic inner circle that may turn out to be a mirage.

One of the biggest challenges in resurrecting the '60s is the fact that what once seemed outré -- from language to conduct -- has since become commonplace. Under Mark Brokaw's trippy direction, Pop! manages to conjure the shock of the new. Looking on, Warhol, were he still alive, might feel obliged to affect boredom. The rest of us get to marvel and be truly amazed.


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