Spoleto review: “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” by Dean and Britta

“13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” by Dean and Britta has certainly been reviewed before, including in Charleston during its Spoleto run here and by the New York Times in 2009 here.

Even though I had heard a lot of positive buzz about the show, I was fully prepared to dislike it. How much more self-consciously hip could a performance sound?

But any fears I had were laid to rest in the opening moments. As the lights dimmed and the screen illuminated, there was Richard Rheem, apparently a former Warhol lover, staring dispassionately at the camera as a subtle and understated — and slightly uneasy — instrumental song played in the background. That perfectly set the pensive mood for the show, which was commissioned by the Andy Warhol Museum and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, best known as the key members of the band Luna that dissolved five years ago or so.

One of the performance highlights was the screen test with Lou Reed, who is really really enjoying a Coke, accompanied by a cover of his own “Not a Young Man Anymore”.

Some of the screen test subjects certainly are beautiful, but a few like Reed and Dennis Hopper are interesting, confident, eye-catching. And we know too that Reed and Hopper went on to great careers. The stronger songs capture something lost. Paul America, for example, had a couple of acting roles after falling in with the Warhol crowd, but his star faded fast. He was struck and killed by a car in Florida in 1982, less than 40 years old. The arc of the life has an inherent sadness, but here we see him young and confident, even cocky. Dean and Britta’s “Teenage Lightning (And Lonely Highways)” seems a perfect match:

“It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills” works just as well for the troubled Edie Sedgwick, followed in this clip by the mesmerizing “Silver Factory Theme” for stylist and photographer Billy Name:

Freddy Herko

Wareham made short comments about most of the clips, as Britta and his really competent musicians Matt Sumrow and Anthony LaMarca switched instruments. The anecdotes were like the rest of the show — fitting and controlled and understated.

Nico didn’t need much context, but Wareham told the longest story of the night about Freddy Herko, a dancer and choreographer who not long after this screen test plunged five floors to his death after dancing nude to Mozart’s Coronation Mass.

The Emmett Robinson Theatre at the College of Charleston was a solid venue for the show. It’s a small space — 250 seats — which makes any performance an intimate one, and the sound is excellent. (I had a very satisfying experience there in 2010 at Haydn’s marionette opera Philemon and Baucis.) The screen tests would have been more dramatic, however, if the screen had been larger. The arrangement of the musicians on the relatively small stage also meant that Wareham in particular was slightly and occasionally obscuring many audience members’ views. I liked the effect of occasionally having to peer around Wareham to see the subtle changes in expression, but I’m not sure that was the best way to stage the show.