The twin vectors of high and low culture have been on a collision course for some time, and they smash up brilliantly in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole, thanks largely to a cleverly veristic, dirty-mouthed libretto by Richard Thomas (“Jerry Springer: The Opera”). It’s a miracle of alchemy, the way Thomas has polished the detritus of reality-TV vulgarity to a high, rich sheen, initially eliciting laughter (when’s the last time opera made you laugh, in a good way?), then shading gradually into genuine pathos.
Director Richard Jones and designers Miriam Buether and Nicky Gillibrand (sets and costumes, respectively) also deserve heaps of praise for creating spectacular stage pictures that vividly deliver the trajectory of a diehard striver, an aspirant to the crasser aspects of the American Dream.
Sarah Joy Miller, in the title role, may not impress vocally (at times her adequate but unremarkable soprano barely penetrates the back of the house), but she has the look – and more important, the ability to stir hearts. As in life, Anna Nicole Smith’s journey is all fun and games and outré antics – until it isn’t. As the curtain closes on the last of a series of body bags, Miller’s bewildered, up-for-anything smile still holds out a shred of hope.
Smith was clueless, and rudderless, and though no victim (she went after what she wanted, with a vengeance), ultimately the dupe of a screwed-up value system, for which – this work suggests – we’re as much to blame as she. Though the story arc is framed more ironically than preachily (“This is one bleak nihilistic tale,” warns the chorus), you’re apt to emerge unable to thumb a copy of, say, People without feeling somehow complicit.
In an ingenious touch, Jones has a growing cadre of perched “cameras” – black-clad dancers, their heads encased in video gear – peering on as Anna Nicole navigates her ascent, from teenage marriage and motherhood in the one-horse Texas town of Mexia to the big time (relatively speaking) in Houston. There, she vaults from a dead-end job at Walmart – blank-masked geriatrics attempt to enchain her in a chorus line macabre – to a “gentleman’s club” where she gyrates like a spastic cheerleader, attempting to draw her portion of remunerative attention.
It’ll take a bit of surgical intervention before Anna can compete with the top earners, but – we all know the story – she ultimately hits the jackpot, in the form of an 89-year-old oil tycoon (feistily played by Robert Brubaker). The marriage lasts only as long as the groom, and from that point on, Anna’s in the clutches of lawyer/promoter/paramour Howard K. Stern (sleazy perfection from Rod Gilfry), whom Thomas introduces with a litany of boo-hiss aliases, starting with “Beelzebub” and ending with “Yoko Ono.”
If ever there was a show capable of closing the gap between high-art opera and popular entertainment, this lavishly produced show – which threatens to bankrupt the daring New York City Opera – is it. Here’s hoping that some smart producer will bankroll a Broadway transfer.