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The mystery at the center of Pop! is really no mystery at all. Just about everyone with more than a passing interest in this musical’s subject knows it was Valerie Solanas, a disgruntled, militant feminist playwright, who shot Andy Warhol on June 3, 1968.
The deeper question in this 90-minute show is who wanted to shoot Warhol. According to playwrights Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, every one of the artist’s “Superstars” was a potential assassin.
Jolting to its start with a gunshot, Pop! opens with Warhol (Tom Story) splayed out in his own cartoonish chalk outline. He gets up, of course, with a droll “Ouch.” Only someone like Warhol would deadpan his way through an investigation of his own attempted murder. Story’s opening number, “Paper Bag,” is sing-songy and addictive—the real Factory’s soundtrack was never this jaunty. Warhol’s studio might have hatched lo-fi art rock here, but Pop! owes far more to Sondheim than Lou Reed.
Still, Warhol’s blasé take on life comes through in Story’s opening lyrics: “If you have a paper bag/An empty paper bag/You can sell it for money/You can hang it on the wall/And people will love you.”
Which is kind of the whole point. Surrounded by his bohemian entourage, Story’s Warhol is every bit a manipulator as he is a curator of human flesh. Edie Sedgwick (Marylee Adams) has visions of stardom, but only Warhol knows she’s nothing more than his pet socialite. Viva (Deborah Lubega) is as brilliant as she is curvy; if only she could get more time on camera. And then there’s Solanas—foul-mouthed and frumpily dressed, demanding Warhol fund her paean to wholesale androcide.
Solanas (a frenetic Rachel Zampelli) might be the only one willing to call Warhol on his shit. Then again, as the outsider banging on the doors begging to be let in, she’s also being taken for the greatest ride. Her solo “Up Your Ass” is one of the more earnest and chipper songs ever laid down about killing every last man on earth. With Edie, Viva, and Solanas as the likely culprits, narration falls to Warhol’s would-be Girl Friday, Candy Darling, played in a gender-confusing performance by Matthew Delorenzo.
Delorenzo’s transformation is one of this show’s most convincing effects. He—or she, perhaps—vamps through Pop!, at least until Candy receives one of those paper bags and becomes a suspect herself. Forced to be detectives are Ondine (Sean-Maurice Lynch) and Gerard Malanga (Luke Tudball), who would rather snort the evidence than study it.
The Factory is just as much a character as any of the Superstars: Set designer Giorgos Tsappas has turned the 2ndStage into working recreation of Warhol’s old haunt. The stairway and vestibules leading to the stage are lined with foil-wrapped walls and pop-art installations; before the show, the stage is dotted with extras milling about, occasionally without clothes; a simulated pong of marijuana fills the room.
But it all comes back to those paper bags. Warhol might be handing them out, but he’s the only one hanging them on the walls and selling them for money. All the Superstars have their aspirations of fame, but Story’s Warhol will only indulge them enough to shut them up. The Factory wasn’t that collaborative; it was Warhol’s scene to curate, and those paper bags are as malleable as the people who received them.
Warhol is indifferent the entire time. Only during a mock funeral does Story break his deadpan. But he quickly dons it again. Solanas might be the villain in waiting, but it’s almost easy to sympathize with her. In Pop! the question isn’t “Who shot Andy Warhol?” Who wouldn’t?