She’s No Diva: Despite Smart Craft and Inspired Casting, Top-Heavy Anna Nicole Fizzles

Breast enlargement jokes only go so far

Sarah Joy Miller, center, as Anna Nicole Smith in 'Anna Nicole.' (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Sarah Joy Miller, center, as Anna Nicole Smith in ‘Anna Nicole.’ (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

For 40 minutes or so last Tuesday night, Anna Nicole puttered along promisingly. The near-capacity audience at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House for the opera’s opening was in a terrific mood, guffawing at the many (mostly crude) verbal jokes, bursting into applause at a couple of visual coups in Richard Jones’s busy production and generally behaving the way a crowd does when it’s present at a smash.

And then, about halfway through the first act, Anna Nicole ran out of gas and not in a quiet, unobtrusive way either. This was like seeing one of those garish stretch limousines, the kind with a Jacuzzi where the trunk ought to be, stalled out in the center lane of a superhighway. Neither the opera nor the evening’s gala spirit ever started moving again.

Until then, the sheer audacity of the opera—composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage to a libretto by Richard Thomas—generated a jittery energy, amplified by a whirlwind approach to storytelling. A noisy chorus in the style of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” brought on the title character, who won the night’s first big laugh by announcing, “I’d like to blow you all [pause] a kiss!” In quick succession, Anna introduced her redneck family and told of her flight from Mexia, Texas, to the “bright lights” of Houston, where employment at a fried-chicken joint and then Walmart left her broke and miserable

So she tried her hand at lap dancing, but, as she’s informed by a chorus of her fellow exotic dancers, she lacked the requisite oversize breasts. So off Anna went to the offices of Dr. Yes, cosmetic surgeon, in a scenario that’s potentially very funny if for no other reason than it’s so alien to our usual experience of opera.

Unfortunately, just as Anna didn’t know when to stop getting augmented, Messrs. Turnage and Thomas don’t seem to know when the joke has played itself out, i.e., within about a minute. For a good 10 minutes after that, it’s breast gag after breast gag: dancers with comically inflated racks in “sexy nurse” costumes, a patter song about silicone implants, even a Handelian chorale set to a litany of all the familiar unprintable slang terms for breast, plus a few (“ruby wazoos”) that seem to have been newly coined.

All this is entertaining over the long haul only to those who find something in the basic concept of breasts to be inherently hilarious; to the adults in the house, once the first shock is past, the scene feels numbingly repetitious. Unengaged, the mind is free to ponder the craftsmanship of Messrs. Turnage and Thomas. Just how inventive is the music, how clever the lyrics?

Sadly, the answer in both cases is “not very.” Both here and elsewhere in the work, the score moves at a steady skitter, rarely slowing down to delve into the emotional states of the characters. Not that there’s much room for delving, as Mr. Thomas grabs at a series of unrelated incidents that are simultaneously sensational and trivial and then has them announced from the stage instead of dramatizing them. The chorus doesn’t so much comment on the action as narrate it: Now Anna is getting married, now Anna is throwing a party, now Anna is dead.

As such, the structure of the work feels like a revue: a chain of disjointed scenes and numbers around a broad theme (pun intended). That said, the first act can be called a success: The brash energy picks up again after the “reveal” of the newly enhanced Anna, building to a surefire finale set at her lurid wedding to elderly billionaire J. Howard Marshall II.

In real life, the liaison with Mr. Marshall coincided with the beginning of Anna Nicole’s public life, posing for Playboy and a Guess jeans ad campaign, acting in the films The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 33: The Final Insult, as well as launching a decade-long legal battle for her share of the late Mr. Marshall’s estate. These events are ignored in the second act of Anna Nicole, save for a cartoonish quartet of disapproval by members of the Marshall family, and that amounted to little more than a dim photocopy of “the actress hasn’t learned the lines you’d like to hear” from Evita.

The tone shifts precipitously in the second act: The nasty-funny satire ends with the intermission, and now the storytelling turns linear, not to say literal, in the manner of a Lifetime movie: Anna, in pain from her surgeries, takes drugs; Anna, ignoring decrepit Mr. Marshall, walks the red carpet and parties in a disco; Anna, overeating, gets fat and depressed. The libretto jumps a decade in the length of a single orchestral interlude (Mr. Turnage’s liveliest pages of the score) during which time the heroine’s two-season stint as a reality TV punching bag is mentioned only in passing. The last scenes attempt to put on stage the unstageable: Anna’s pay-per-view Cesarean section, her son Daniel’s death by drug overdose lying beside her in her hospital bed, her own mysterious demise.

There’s a last-minute flurry of meta excitement as Anna’s mother, Virgie, and lawyer, Howard K. Stern, argue about how factually the details of the diva’s last days have been presented in the opera, which is frankly moot since Messrs. Turnage and Thomas have spent the last two hours telling instead of showing. Virgie’s lament has an immediacy and sincerity that seem to have strayed in from a completely different work, and finally poor victimized Anna gets zipped into a body bag by one of an army of anthropomorphic television cameras that have been stalking her since the opening of the act.

Anna Nicole may not be up to much as a work of art, but there’s some very smart craft here. As the focus of the piece narrows in on the central character, both text and music take on a deliberate simplicity, with easy, obvious, single-syllable rhymes and Copland-esque folksy melodies trying to communicate in terms Anna might understand. The seductive little waltz song performed by the food in Anna’s oversize refrigerator is a clever touch: Operatic heroes from Tannhäuser to Tom Rakewell fall for sexy close-harmony women’s choruses, so why shouldn’t Anna succumb to the charms of cheeseburgers and gooey pies?

A little later, Anna’s son, Daniel (Nicholas Barasch), overdoses. Silent in life, he emerges from his body bag to croon a hip little pop tune whose lyric is simply a rundown of all the drugs the coroner found in his bloodstream. The grisliest part of the joke is that the kid was so pumped full of chemicals that a second verse is necessary to complete the list.

If the rest of Anna Nicole had risen consistently to the level of wit in these two numbers, it might have been a masterpiece. As the work stands, though, it’s utterly dependent on strong individual performances, and in casting the show New York City Opera mostly succeeded brilliantly.

The major holdover from the 2011 Covent Garden premiere of the work is Susan Bickley as Virgie, and the British mezzo is a welcome addition to an otherwise all-American cast. Virgie is the voice of morality in the piece, and as written she comes off as a humorless scold, a walking op-ed. But Ms. Bickley’s rough charm and intelligence warm her up and make us care. The chorus at great length excoriates the sleazy Stern (“Judas Iscariot,” they call him, “Yoko Ono!”) but it’s Ms. Bickley’s steely stare and slashing vocals that define him for us as the real villain of the piece: As Stern, baritone Rod Gilfry flinches every time she approaches him, like a vampire before a crucifix.

Mr. Gilfry, who is 53 and has been singing opera for close to 30 years, sounded and looked great, which is something of a pity, because Stern has some of the score’s emptiest music, blank arioso outbursts of generalized unpleasantness. Another veteran performer, Robert Brubaker, playing decades past his own age as the doddering Marshall, expressed the character’s determination in an assured, flinty tenor.

Richard Troxell, also a tenor, won four or five solid laughs from his one-joke role as the plastic surgeon, all without resorting to ugly “character” singing. His Dr. Yes sounded as romantic as any Massenet hero.

The luxury casting of Broadway diva Christina Sajous in the cameo role of lap dancer Blossom was an object lesson in just how much opera singers have to learn from their pop-oriented colleagues. Not only was every word vivid, her big, easy belt brought a welcome punch of energy into her act one scene.

But the strongest supporting company in the world can’t carry a show in which the central role is miscast, and, sadly, Sarah Joy Miller was no Anna Nicole Smith. She’s physically exactly the wrong type, petite and pert, and she projects a kind of sparkly sweetness that’s the antithesis of Ms. Smith’s surly passive aggression. Even when outfitted with special-effect “implants,” Ms. Miller looked like an ingenue in a DD cup instead of a pneumatic glamazon.

You have to hand it to her. She worked hard all night long, leaving the stage for no more than maybe five minutes in each act, dancing constantly and coping the best she could with the role’s dramatic soprano writing. But her slender lyric-coloratura got swamped a lot, except for high notes that tended to spread. The voice, colorless and unresonant, sounded tired, and, given the strenuous performance schedule for Anna Nicole (seven performances in 11 days), she’s not going to get much chance to rest.

As galas go, then, this one was something of a downer, exacerbated by worry over the probability that this Anna Nicole will be NYCO’s final presentation of the season or possibly of all time. Unless the company can raise a total of $7 million by the end of the month (of which only $123,000 has so far been pledged via Kickstarter, which the goal is $1 million), they’re going to need a lot more body bags.