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Why is this man smiling? McGuire in American Soup.

From Nuts to Nuts

By James Yeara

American Soup

By Mary Jane Hansen, directed by Bill Fortune, musical direction by Will Severin

New York State Theatre Institute, through March 17

American Soup by Mary Jane Han-sen is a phenomenal 45-minute revue of some classic or near-classic rock and pop songs from the 1950s through the 1980s, from 1958’s “Johnny B. Goode” to 1984’s “Missing You,” with stops along the way for “American Pie,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “Like a Virgin” just to hit the highlights. American Soup has fantastic commercial viability as an hourly presentation at Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Café. Musical director Will Severin’s six-piece band (Raymond Jung on bass, Brandon Joes on keyboards-vocals, Joel Aroeste on guitar, George Fortune on percussion-vocals, Severin on guitar and vocals, with Shannon Johnson as featured vocalist) blister through the songs with great clarity and power, capturing the energy of hits like “Born to Be Wild” and the bittersweetness of “California Dreamin’.” Each classic is covered well, sounding as close to the original as possible while still exuding enough sense of being a live performance that the audience rocks in Russell Sage College’s Schacht Fine Arts Center as an audience at the Schacht Fine Arts Center has never rocked before. The songs receive an adequate intro by people walking across the stage saying lines like “When I was 6, I saw Elvis” (segues to “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) and “I remember the first time I got into real trouble” (segues to “Mercedes Benz”). So strong and sure are the playing and singing that you may wish, as I did, that you had Severin’s 7-Up group on your iPod smart list.

American Soup by Mary Jane Hansen is a promising 15-minute-long fantasy on white-suited, white-haired, white-on-white Andy Warhol (effetely and effectively enacted by John McGuire in what has become his finest season at NYSTI) in purgatory visited by a black-suited, black-briefcase-bearing character named Joe (Ron Komora) who may be Death come to assign Andy to hell (or Uncle Joe Bruno come to take back the state grants). Framed by copies of Warhol’s famous pop-art silkscreened images of Campbell’s soup cans, Elvis Presley, Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe on set designer Robert Anton’s evocative grey scaffolding, the exchanges between Andy and Joe have a quirkiness that could eventually be crafted into an engaging performance piece on the nature of art, life, and death, though having Andy Warhol act as a guardian angel a la Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life already is a stroke of high camp genius—or the result of one too many late-night bong loads.

American Soup by Mary Jane Hansen is a 50-minute-long pedantic and banal meandering through key events of the time between 1961 through the 1980s as seen through the touchstone of a stereotypical working-class family in Queens. This PowerPoint presentation masquerading as a play exploits the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and AIDS in a quest for relevance; it achieves a sort of Fox News-smarmy, hot-button sensationalism, indicating a presupposed feeling instead of acting a truth in the moment or achieving an emotional response from the caricatured characters’ situations. If gay marriage, abortion rights, flag burning and illegal immigration were thrown in, you’d have all the touchstones through to 2007. It’s pretense presented with blocking and head bobbing. There’s too much declaring—“This country still hasn’t passed something called ‘The Equal Rights Amendment’ ” and “Well, after the Peace Corps, I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help build a monument to Martin Luther King Jr.” being two of the more egregiously clunky—and too many lines that ironically announce the critic of American Soup: “We’ll never actually get it together, will we?” “This isn’t funny,” and “I know it’s not the real thing, but I’ll sing you a song every single day.”

American Soup by Mary Jane Hansen is 107 intermissionless minutes of song, facts, and ersatz “dramedy” that are like the bastard child of an iPod mother and a Wikipedia father. The songs, the Warhol fantasy, and the soap opera-ish story of the Queens family don’t blend together like a soup, but stay separate like the meat, mashed potatoes, and cherries of ancient TV dinners. American Soup does stand as a tangible exemplar of Andy Warhol’s dialogue and NYSTI’s guiding aesthetic: “I think everyone should do whatever they want.” With enough grants and family connections, everyone should have their 15 minutes of fame.

 


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