BWW Reviews: ANNA NICOLE's 36DDs Gain AAA Status with New York City Opera at BAM's Next Wave Festival

With a story that is somehow poignant despite its scatological language, ANNA NICOLE's heroine is nicer than Berg's LULU, less lucky than TRAVIATA's Violetta and more cunning than MANON's Manon (though maybe not MANON LESCAUT's).

Whatever else she is, Anna Nicole is definitely a full-fledged operatic heroine. As portrayed by American soprano Sarah Joy Miller in the local premiere of the Marc-Anthony Turnage-Richard Thomas work about the life and times of minor celebrity Smith, this is a wildly entertaining evening. The opera, which debuted two years ago in London, opened on September 17 at Brooklyn Academy of Music, compliments of New York City Opera and BAM's Next Wave Festival, directed by Richard Jones.

Ready for the record books?

Will NYC Opera enter the annals of the Guinness Book of World Records for starting two consecutive seasons with operas that prominently feature oral sex? Following Thomas Ades' POWDER HER FACE earlier this year, ANNA NICOLE is tame in comparison (though there's nothing mild about the language). As a cohesive work, the music by Turnage is more appealing than the Ades depiction of the trials and tribulations of the Duchess of Argyle.

Jazz-inflected and not afraid to switch from Broadway-style belting to pure modern dissonance, Turnage has created a vocabulary for the work that always seems just right and conductor Steven Sloane brought out an energetic yet nuanced performance from the orchestra. Turnage picked the right partner in his librettist, who previously supplied the book for "Jerry Springer: The Opera." I was prepared for the opera to do some America-bashing--a favorite cultural pastime of the British--but it did no more than might be done by any local observer of the low end of American life. It says something about our times that the potty-mouthed libretto doesn't seem to go too far: It doesn't really shock, but makes us laugh like we're in on the joke.

A star performance

There's no doubt for a moment about who the star of this show is--because soprano Miller never leaves the stage from start to finish and keeps our attention, even when she's not wearing the fake breasts to emulate the "after" side of Anna Nicole Smith's cosmetic surgery.

She makes us understand the title character, as a single mom who wants to leave small town life behind and carve out an existence for herself and her child. There's nothing she won't do, except take a soul-crushing job at Walmart. Miller's voice could have been a little bigger, but there was a creaminess to it that sometimes reminded me of Renee Fleming and helped soften the edges of the character. The final scene, as she is zipped into a body bag, is devastating, as she offers to "blow us...blow us...a kiss."

Mixing opera and Broadway

The rest of the cast, combining opera and Broadway talent, did some fine work in supporting Miller. At the top of the list, kudos must go mezzo Susan Bickley, repeating her London performance, who was tremendously moving as Smith's mother. Tenor Robert Brubaker did wonderful work as billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, Smith's 89-year-old husband, who was a horny old coot till the end. And I wished baritone Rod Gilfry had more to sing as Howard K. Stern, Smith's attorney-promoter-lover, but he was certainly oily enough, and then some. I also liked the gusto of Richard Troxell as Doctor Yes, who helps the opera present a short history of breast augmentation surgery.

Nicholas Barasch gave an understated performance as Daniel, Smith's teenage son from her first marriage. Daniel's job from childhood was to bring Smith's painkillers, to help her deal with the ongoing back pain from her oversized breasts. At the end, he has a simple song, performed in a body bag, in which he recounts all the drugs in his system at his death. This is the final straw in Smith's sad life.

There were also a couple of major Broadway names in the cast, but both came under the heading of "luxury casting." In particular, it was nice to see Mary Testa, as Smith's aunt and one of the family litigants in her trial over Marshall's estate, but I wished she had more to do; James Barbour, as an early husband, was similarly underutilized.

A stage-sized mattress and dancing newsreel cameras

The production, the original design by Miriam Buether and outrageously appropriate costumes by Nicky Gillibrand for the London premiere, brought some wonderful touches--I particularly liked her overdone wedding to Marshall and the stage-size mattress that opened the second act, celebrating their wedding night. There's also a memorable backdrop as Smith changes from pinup to blowsy caricature during long trial over her husband's estate. I don't know who gets credit for the walking, dancing cameras that symbolized the tabloid fascination with Smith, but they worked wonderfully. Choreographer Aletta Collins, working seamlessly with director Jones, keeps the production in motion every moment, and the scene with the silicone-enhanced pole dancers is a gem.

The success of this audacious production is, of course, bittersweet, as New York City Opera fights for its life. The company's Kickstart campaign has taken in $110,000 to date--with a long way to go in the next 11 days. Hey, Mayor Bloomberg, are you listening? City Opera's proving it deserves more of your financial support!

Photo by: Stephanie Berger

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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