The quick burn of celebrity has rarely been as spectacular as in the rise and fall of Anna Nicole Smith. “She blazed like a comet, as in a shiny thing in the skies, that hangs around a bit, then suddenly dies, “ as the chorus of newscasters intones in the Anna Nicole opera that just ended its raunchy run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The production centered around the small town Texas waitress turned lap-dancer, turned aged billionaire’s wife, turned Playboy model, turned reality show train wreck, may have indeed also been the final blaze of the New York City Opera, which has just canceled the rest of its season due to bankruptcy and may be dissolving its company entirely. At least it went out in trashy style, with BAM rolling out the pink carpets on its front steps and decking out its lobby in garish chandeliers. And it did fall somewhere between trash and triumph, with the bravado of the production and the buoyancy of the cast (particularly the charming Sarah Joy Miller as the title tragic character) totally winning over what wasn’t the most eloquent of material, and material that didn’t seem sure if it wanted to celebrate, satirize, or lament the ambitious Anna Nicole.
This was the American premiere of the old American rags-to-riches-to-overdose tale, having first played at the Royal Opera House in London in 2011. The opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage, with a libretto by Richard Thomas (who also lent crass wordplay to Jerry Springer: The Opera), turned moments in Anna Nicole’s life, like her breast augmentation (“supersize me!” she proclaims, which may or may not have also been a rather cruel quip on her love of junk food) into a silicone serenade. Her meeting of 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall II — played by the game Robert Brubaker — is a beatific visit. It’s a bit like Cinderella perhaps meeting her fairy godfather, although here it is more like a randy godfather, trading pink stilettos for Jimmy Choos instead of glass.
The curtain that was installed especially for the production — in pink, of course — showed Anna Nicole with her head tossed back between two flexing bodybuilders, her face looped by the Middle French words: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” à la the Order of the Garter, here basically meaning “shame to those who think badly of me.” And really, that was the whole mood of the opera. Sure, this might not be an opera revived in say, 30 years when the flashbulb light of her life has lost its glare (it was only in 2007 that she died at the age of 39, after all), but who cares. It’s engaging to have something operatic that’s in the moment and willing to take a risk with embracing someone who has by many been written off as gold digger trash, her very name applied to an opera an instant joke, when at least to make it from nothing to something you must have a real drive and some serious street smart ambition, even if it might kill you.
For all its giant bobble head dogs, ridiculous and oversize props (and not just the rubbery breasts suctioned to Sarah Joy Miller’s skin), jubilant use of profanity, and treating of an on-stage mimed blow job with the same attention as the death of the receiver (alas, the poor old billionaire), the ending was truly unsettling to the point of queasiness. A devastated Anna Nicole, who has just lost her 20-year-old son on the same bed she was recovering from giving birth (as her mother, powerfully played by Susan Bickley, moans “the mind boggles, the mind warps, you wake up cuddling your own son’s corpse”), slumps on the toilet and then trails toilet paper back to her zebra striped chair center stage. The camera-headed people who have been circling since her billionaire marriage have multiplied into a silent horde, and some assist in wrapping a body bag around her as she sings out the words she first cheekily greeted the audience with: “I want to blow you all, blow you all… a kiss.” And then the black plastic covers her face and the camera people stomp around, digging through her strewn trash, and a light flashes the silence into darkness.
Anna Nicole played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) from September 17 to 28.
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