Actor Tammy Lang Hartel knows something about the transformations that take place on stage. It’s how she became Tammy Faye Starlite, a fictional evangelical Christian country singer who Hartel created at the beginning of her career when she was pursuing performance comedy. That might be why Hartel is adept at portraying Christa Päffgen — otherwise known as Nico, the model, actress, and pop chanteuse known for her years with the Velvet Underground.
Though she’s closely associated with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Hartel says Nico was her own person, an idiosyncratic artist who was just as mysterious as she was popular.
“She would answer a question 10 minutes after you asked it,” said Hartel. “She would answer in non-sequiturs. I find her utterly compelling.”
Hartel recreates Nico’s life in “Nico: Underground,” on stage at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth April 8-9. Hartel wrote the one-woman show in 2010 and since then has been performing it around the country, bringing to life the German-born singer’s contradictions and quirks. Hartel wrote the script after talking with Nico’s friends and relatives and studying hours of archived interviews and recordings.
“You might see her as being a little contentious,” Hartel said. “But she’s not really. She had her own way of doing things.”
The research has helped Hartel perfect Nico’s mannerisms and attitude — distant and aloof, self-centered, coy yet confident. The “It Girl” of the 1960s and 1970s rock scene, Nico mingled with everyone from Bob Dylan to David Bowie. Warhol made her the centerpiece of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 album, and she went on to have a long solo career until her death in 1988. In “Nico: Underground,” Hartel portrays the singer in a reenactment of a 1986 interview in which Nico half-coherently discusses her collaborations, lovers, and career. The show features several of Nico’s songs, also performed by Hartel. She calls it “the world’s first and only sturm and drang jukebox musical.”
“I like things about her that were more conventional. She was nice. I don’t know how many feelings she knew she had,” Hartel said. “It’s just playing pretend, and I just assume people will believe me. I look nothing like her.”
Rick Dumont, a Madbury-based writer and director, brought the show to The Music Hall Loft through his production company, Sweaty Turtle Entertainment. “Nico: Underground” will double as a benefit for three local nonprofits: Haven (formerly SASS and A Safe Place), The Freedom Café in Durham, and the Cocheco Valley Humane Society.
“I think there’s a certain element of Nico’s life where, in terms of her drug abuse, she had a certain degree of strength within her that I think is also important to show — that even though she chose the path she did, she was always highly regarded,” Dumont said. “She went against that grain and didn’t play on her beauty like some people do in society today. She didn’t care about being known as beautiful.”
Hartel, who studied creative writing at New York University and had a recurring role on the soap opera “Guiding Light” before launching “Nico: Underground,” said this will be her first time performing in New Hampshire.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the audience reacts,” she said. “The goal is to hopefully make it a little funny and strange and accessible.”
“Nico: Underground” is on stage April 8-9 at 7:30 p.m. at The Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St., Portsmouth. $25-$35, visit themusichall.org or call 603-436-2400.