In a way you can't fault underfunded New York City Opera general manager and artistic director George Steel for scheduling Anna Nicole, the Richard Thomas/Mark-Anthony Turnage opera (or maybe popera), now at BAM, as the opening for what could be the revamped company's swan-song season. It will be if the $20 million needed isn't raised pronto.
Steel undoubtedly figured the ripped-from-the-headlines story of the late gold-digger with the big treasure chest would likely be hot box-office. He must have seen Anna Nicole at London's Covent Garden when it premiered there in 2011. He maybe even thought it not only commercial but also is good, worthwhile.
It's a particular pity to report that though Anna Nicole might be b.-o. catnip, it isn't an artistic treasure chest. To its credit, the salty humor that from time to time librettist Thomas slots into it gets the crowd chuckling. And that's something. "You won't be bored," the large opening chorus of Ralph (This is Your Life) Edwards-like men and women chant.
Well, yes and no. The brutal truth is that you will be bored by Turnage's music--and quickly. As conducted by Steven Sloane but hardly his problem, the score just plods along in an ominously nervous and throbbing way. Nowhere in it are opportunities seized to break into anything remotely dramatic. It's as if Turnage has listened to too much Gian-Carlo Menotti and other composers going after 20th- and 21st-century angst and then drained what he'd heard of pith.
All right, there is one touching aria about aging sung by Anna's rich second hubby, J. Howard Marshall II (Robert Brubaker, who nails it) before he buys the farm. On the other hand, what the desperate Anna (Sarah Joy Miller, fully committed) sings when going for her chronic-back-pain-promising cosmetic surgery doesn't register. The sentiment was handled much better, much funnier as "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" in A Chorus Line.
Aside from the pedestrian score, the major Anna Nicole drawback is its dogged chronological presentation of Mexia, Texas-born Vickie Lynn Hogan as she quits her home but not her mother (Susan Bickley, the true stand-out here), fails as a stripper until she goes for the breast implants, becomes a Playboy playmate of the year 1993, snags the 63-years-her-senior rolling-in-it oil magnate Marshall and--unsurprisingly--outlives him.
Whereupon with questionable help from lawyer/current boyfriend Howard K. Stern (Rod Gilfry), she tangles with his family over who gets the moolah, makes a fool of herself in front of Larry King (John Easterlin) on his talkfest, and finally dies from an overdose of who-knows-how-many substances. Before she breathes her last, she does declare--with unintentional humor--the Evita-like "I gave you everything, but you wanted more." Poor, altruistic thing.
Framed by a series of garish but not all that inspired Miriam Buether sets--one room-sized blue-green mattress, a corner of which is pushed up a wall is attention-getting--Anna Nicole fails to live up to its promise as a result of Thomas's meager satirical skills. Sure, he can throw an obscenity in as if a dart at a dartboard, but that's hardly enough.
Thomas's previous London click, Jerry Springer: The Opera--still to receive a New York production beyond the two-night 2008 Carnegie Hall date--is a two-act work during which he ran out of things to say after about 15 minutes. He's done it again. Okay, the deleterious effects of lowbrow popular culture obviously fascinate him. He's intrigued by what they reveal about a crumbling society. He doesn't, however, bring any new ideas to his sometimes rhymed, sometime off-rhymed ("mine" with "time") excoriation--which the program notes is "based on a true story. Some characters have been invented, some events imagined or changed."
As act II of the liberty-taking gets underway and Anna--discovered in bed with Marshall--arises to sing about fame and "the sound of a Jimmy Choo shoe," two dancers in black leotards and wearing outsized cameras as headpieces are positioned nearby. Similarly outfitted dancers multiply throughout the act until they predominate with sinister intent. So In taking on Anna Nicole Smith as symbol or our worst societal manifestations, Thomas is saying something about cameras invading our lives.
But what? Don't forget that publicity-craving Anna Nicole invited them into her home. She--whose son Danny died of an overdose in her bed at 19 and who died before her daughter Dannielynn was a year old--even starred in a reality show. (As far as I could determine, the fact isn't mentioned any place in the work.) This makes buxom, now bent-over Anna not so much victim as perpetrator. As a result, Thomas looks as if he's not certain what he's trying to get across. Who doesn't realize that we're constantly being watched by cameras stationed everywhere. So what else is new? Tune in to the CBS series Person of Interest for a more creative angle.
Were the NYCO's Anna Nicole, directed adequately by Richard Jones, an isolated disappointment, it could be dismissed as a forgivable mistake. But it's not. To some extent, the company future rests on impressed individuals and corporation members leaping in to fill the $20 million shortfall. But what of those who come away unimpressed by what isn't genuinely impressive?
There's another, far less important concern. Having taken on Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith, might Richard Thomas be preparing a little something called Kim K. or The Kardashians? If so, woe is we.
(N. B.: It's important to be aware that Anna NIcole is a Brooklyn Academy of Music-New York City Opera co-production. Since BAM rarely becomes involved in producing works of this scope, the undertaking is a significant exception.)