“Nothing gets noticed. Nothing is a story,” Warhol sings late in the proceedings at Studio Theatre, in the guise of actor Tom Story, his hair bleached and parted in trademark Warhol fashion. The idea that nothing is everything and everything is nothing is reinforced from the start of Studio’s 2ndStage production — skillfully assembled by director Keith Alan Baker — when Story, languorously examining a brown paper lunch bag, sings of its magical properties:
“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.”
For this idiosyncratic investigation to have meaning, do you have to be on intimate terms with pop art? No, but a healthy intellectual interest in the roots of modern celebrity culture and one of its high priests would be very useful. The show is not so much biography as impressionistic social history, and, as a result, the format becomes a bit scattershot. Though it conjures figures from Warhol’s famous Manhattan studio, the Factory, such as Viva (Deborah Lubega) and Edie Sedgwick (Marylee Adams), “Pop!” tends to present them as exactly the sorts of crazy, 15-minutes-of-fame junkies you’d imagine. Their stories become redundant.
But Warhol is such a theatrically accommodating puzzle that the show locates its entertainingly eccentric pulse anytime it tries to offer insight into his persona. In “Pop!,” the songwriters posit that persona, which was also an aspect of his art, almost killed him. His habit of filling his own paper bag with the needy outcasts whom he turned into ’60s underground celebrities was a careless flirtation with disaster; the musical’s historical centerpiece is the night in June 1968 when he was shot and seriously wounded by one of his more psychotic hangers-on.
Presided over by the character of transsexual Warhol superstar Candy Darling (Matthew Delorenzo, in a remarkable transformation), the musical unfolds as a pseudo-detective story, the members of the Factory “family” being the prime suspects. The regulars embodied here also include Ondine (Sean Maurice Lynch) and Gerard Malanga (Luke Tudball). Like the volatile gallery of presidential hit people of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” the Factory stars over the course of the evening reveal most of the desperate depths of their narcissism.
The nuttiest character is Valerie Solanas, a hyper-militant feminist and leader of the Society for Cutting Up Men, who wants Warhol to publish her play, the elegantly titled “Up Your [Expletive].” In her portrayal of the embittered Valerie, Rachel Zampelli establishes herself as a force: It’s a riveting, utterly convincing turn. Scowling under her newsboy’s cap, Zampelli’s Valerie becomes an inferno of entitlement, expressed blazingly in the rocking, anti-patriarchal “Big Gun,” the evening’s strongest number. You understand completely where imbalance will lead her.
As the submissive-seeming Warhol, the talented Story takes full advantage of his best role in a long time. The surface meekness, the voice reeking of mild disinterest here mask a far more determined and insecure creature whom Story expertly connotes. Barging in on a trio of abstract expressionists — the celebrated postwar art movement that pop art upended — Story stares one of them up and down. “I’m a huge fan of your work,” he declares. “It looks so easy and fun.”
It’s a great line, delivered with deadly sweetness, a moment that exposes a crack in the facade. The idea of a fissure also serves to illuminate Warhol’s relationships in “Pop!” with Edie, Candy and company, for what he wants from them is diametrically opposed to their desire to milk Warhol for material comfort and lasting renown. “Do I look like a silk screen to you?” Candy exclaims, indignantly, in response to Warhol’s plaintive refrain: “But I made you art.”
The art itself is in evidence on a set by Giorgos Tsappas that includes a red sofa like the secondhand one that famously adorned Warhol’s studio. It is dramatically lighted by Colin K. Bills and dominated by large screens, on which Erik Trester’s images of Warhol’s works are projected. (The audience enters through an art-strewn vestibule that seems to be modeled on the Factory.)
Costume designer Ivania Stack gives us a go-go fashion show, doling out dazzling miniskirts and hot pants, for instance, to Adams’s Edie and Lubega’s Viva. While Jacobs’s conventional music is not particularly evocative of the period, it has the required sass, and Adams and Lubega contribute vivaciously to the score’s effectiveness.
“Pop!” loses some of its, er, pop, when it lingers for too long on the least interesting question it asks: Who shot Andy Warhol? When it’s engaged in the more challenging task of sorting out Warhol’s motivations, the enterprise becomes more than easy and fun. It becomes significant.
Music by Anna K. Jacobs, book and lyrics by Maggie-Kate Coleman. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Co-directed by Hunter Styles and Jennifer Harris. Choreography, Helanius J. Wilkins; set, Giorgio Tsappas; lighting, Colin K. Bills; music director, Christopher Youstra; projections, Erik Trester; sound, Aaron Fisher; costumes, Ivania Stack. With Danielle Davis, Daniel Mori, Jorge Portillo, Danae Truhart, Rob Watts. About 90 minutes. Through Aug. 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.