The Bearded Ladies, Philadelphia’s experimental cabaret troupe, is bringing its latest show to full bloom with “Andy: A Popera” through July 27 at The Wilma Theater. The show is inspired by the life and times of out artist and cultural icon Andy Warhol, who rose to fame in the 1950s-’60s and pushed the boundaries and perceptions of pop culture, art and fame.
“He really took over the arts scene in this huge and lasting way,” Bearded Ladies cast member Kristen Bailey said. “We still see the effect of his art on stuff that we make now. A question we are asking a lot is Why? Why is what he did so exciting? Why have we clung to that? Why do we put it on a pedestal? Is it something or is it nothing? Is it a soup can with a purpose and commentary on commercialism in our culture? Or is it nothing and he just liked soup cans?”
It is those questions the new cabaret show is looking to explore.
“The exploration of art is usually on a museum wall, but an intimate cabaret that is about this moment we are sharing is an interesting way to look at that kind of art,” Bailey said. “It’s a cerebral experience and we are making it conversation.”
Bailey noted audiences should not show up to the performance expecting to be educated about the subject of Andy Warhol.
“We really like to stay away from anything that feels like a biopic,” she said. “What we’ve done is taken research from his whole life and anything that felt exciting to us and that’s how we filtered through the research. This is our response to Andy’s life. If you come wanting to learn about who he was and get chronological events, you will be very disappointed. It’s more about a feeling, tone, idea and philosophy in which we are digging around and exploring.”
Bailey portrays Edie Sedgwick, a socialite and model who appeared in a number of Warhol’s short films.
Sedgwick’s life was cut short by an accidental drug overdose.
“It’s really fun and terribly depressing,” Bailey said about playing the character. “She’s full of juice and she makes a great party and she’s fun. One of the interesting things about her is that she didn’t make any art. She was a part of the celebrity and fame that surrounded Andy and sang on a Velvet Underground song but she wasn’t an artist. Her art is her persona. She became this awesome buddy to Andy and skyrocketed to fame. Then he totally disregarded her and that was it for her. She is a superstar but there is a sad heart in there, which I’m hoping to portray. What is that for and is it worth the sacrifices she is making and is it a sacrifice? These are all questions we are asking that Edie really helps to explore.”
(Hmm. A famous, photogenic and well-connected socialite who is famous for no apparent reason? Will today’s audiences ever be able to grasp such a concept?)
Bailey said that Warhol’s concepts of art and fame are just as relevant now, if not more so, as they were in the 1960s.
“If Andy was around now he’d be in love with selfies,” she said. “We track this fame craze into our present day. I really think if Andy were around today, he would eat up reality TV. He would be all over Twitter.”
For the show, The Bearded Ladies collaborated with Opera Philadelphia.
Bailey admitted that, at first, the raucous humor of the cabaret group seemed like an odd pairing with the classically trained performers — but it works.
“I was definitely curious about how that was going to go down, especially in the development process when we get really silly and do crazy things in the room,” she said. “They’re used to being note-perfect and memorized on their first rehearsal. I don’t know if Opera Philadelphia picked out their weirdest chorus members but they have been great and totally game. I think we’ve raised an eyebrow a few times but they have been awesome, and it’s cool to have that other kind of energy in the room to kind-of balance us.”
Bailey added that having Opera Philadelphia involved with the show also gives “Andy” some musical depth beyond the obvious pop music of the artist’s heyday.
“They are coming together and meeting each other in an exciting way,” she said about the different musical styles in the show. “There’s this layer of pop and this layer of opera that goes over it or around it. That is part of why it is so amazing to have opera singers in there. They are our age and they know all these pop songs. That’s exciting to me that we can make opera look cool and they will be helping us look cool.”
“Andy: A Popera” as it appears at The Wilma Theater is the final stage of a year-long project for the two groups — which developed the production from its beginning as a series of five-minute pop-up performances with a small cast in various locations into a fully realized show featuring an ensemble cast of up to 30 performers.
Bailey said that performing the smaller pieces help to make the final version of the show stronger.
“You can just sit in your rehearsal room box and have an idea about how it will go over but you won’t really have any clue until you’ve done it in front of people,” she said. “That’s why we decided to do it this way. We can only get to a certain point of creating something that is meant to be witnessed live before you can’t know what to do with it anymore. We’ve figured out a lot about the tone in which we want to tell this story. It’s important to make it immediate and feel like something is happening in the room right now with us here together so that it continues to be exciting. We figured out how to keep the audience with us and engaged even though it isn’t a traditional narrative storyline to follow. There’s nothing more fun that dressing up like a soup can and standing next to the soup aisle in the grocery store flash-mobbing people. Feeling that energy, especially for the opera singer, is really important to discover before we get into the real show.”
Given Philadelphia’s history with flash mobs, we’re guess that most city residents would be relieved to see a human-sized soup can dancing in the grocery store instead of teenagers running amok.
“Yes, flash mobs can mean something,” Bailey said.
The Bearded Ladies and Opera Philadelphia present “Andy: A Popera” through July 27 at The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.beardedladiescabaret.com or www.wilmatheater.org.