By Nino Pantano
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The United States premiere of the opera “Anna Nicole” is a joint venture of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM'S) "New Wave" and the New York City Opera. The performance took place at the Howard Gilman Opera House on Tuesday, Sept. 17, and will run for seven performances through Saturday, Sept. 28.
The striking pink curtain with a logo consisting of Anna Nicole and two musclemen looked like a "bizarro" version of the curtain at London's Royal Opera. To sum up the plot, according to the notes, “Anna Nicole,” the opera, tells the story of Anna Nicole Smith, a small-town Texas waitress (and later exotic dancer) in pursuit of the American dream. Ms. Smith wed an octogenarian billionaire and became a playboy model and tabloid celebrity, living a life of excess and substance abuse under the constant glare of the media until her death at the age of 39 in 2007.
Sarah Joy Miller was perfect as Anna Nicole. Her radiant and sparkling soprano was more than up to the demands of this arduous role. Her strong willed steely and ambitious nature rivaled Lady Macbeth in its gritty intensity masked by tabloid frivolity. Her singing of "My Time For Dreams" was up there with Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” Ms. Miller strutted on the stage with top heavy panache and the predicted back pain from her breast enhancement, making her a tragic-comic figure, both ruthless and vulnerable. Ms. Miller was unforgettable in this great role.
Robert Brubaker was J. Howard Marshall II, Anna Nicole's second husband. His soaring tenor and trembling countenance made him a comical figure but never one to ridicule. His descending earthbound on a golden throne was quite a sight, but he certainly was a "godsend" for Anna Nicole. His philosophy of living each moment for the pleasure she gave him was fodder for her claim for half his wealth. His death in a gold lame outfit at a wild disco party had its inevitability, but one was sorry to see him go.
Anna Nicole's mother Virgie was indelibly played by Susan Bickley, whose powerful dark mezzo soprano coupled with poignant despair shook the rafters and touched the heart.
Ben Davis was a strong link in this chain of events as Billy, Anna's first husband, whose downhill slide "out of love" was inevitable. His flexible resonant baritone and strong acting were skillfully utilized.
Rod Gilfry as Stern, Anna Nicole's lawyer, confidant and lover, used his beguiling stage presence, good looks and vibrant baritone to give a vivid portrayal.
Richard Troxell as Doctor "Yes" sang in a strong tenor as the "feelgood" plastic surgeon and breast enhancer.
John Easterlin, tenor, was a plus as Larry King. He strongly suggested the character of the talk show host without being cartoonish.
The young Daniel was played by Griffin Reese. Finn Robbins and the teenage Daniel was Nicholas Barasch. All were marvelous.
All of the cast members in smaller parts were excellent. Many doubled as the suing Marshall family. They included Michael Hance as the mayor of Mexia, Joshua Jeremiah as the deputy mayor, James Barbour as Daddy Hogan (Anna Nicole's father), Mary Testa as Aunt Kay and Elizabeth Pojanowsi as cousin Shelley.
The colorful "lap dancers" were Bridget Hogan, Marti Newland, Basia Revi and Megan Scheibal. It seemed like a remake of Broadway's "Kinky Boots” or pole dancers like the Bada-Bing Club from The Sopranos. To add more musical mayhem were the Meat Rack Quartet, the jazz trio, bodybuilders, hairdressers and news reporters, all flooding the stage with action and color. Paparazzi with camera heads and black ballet tights roamed the stage and aisles of the auditorium.
When Anna Nicole's son Daniel dies of a drug overdose, Anna also passes on shortly after giving birth to her daughter by placing herself in a body bag. The stage floor is all newspapers and cameras and it all ends with a flash of light. Her last words were "I would like to blow you all a kiss."
This work, commissioned by the Royal Opera, had its premiere in London in February 2011. The composer Mark Anthony Turnage has given us a work of skill and grit. I asked two ladies on the train home who were at the performance what they thought. One of them said, “The evening was truly spectacular, but the music lacked melody and heart. It was more like film music. Whatever happened to melody?”
The libretto by the brilliantly talented Richard Thomas was at times witty and vulgar, and the chorus sang with Falstaffian (Verdi) brio and many bawdy lyrics were cleverly used with Gilbert and Sullivan like patter. Anna Nicole emerged as a tragic figure at the end, used and exploited -- but what a sad journey!
The brilliant pink hued set design was by Miriam Buether, the colorful costumes by Nicky Gillibrand were eye-catching, the peerless lighting design was by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, the stunning choreography was by Aletta Collins, and kudos to chorus master Bruce Stasnya. The production was sung in English with excellent supertitles (Richard Thomas) and magically directed by Richard Jones.
The New York City Opera Orchestra of 60 superb musicians was conducted with skill and grace by Steven Sloane. This Charles Ivesian score was under his masterful control!
The glittering audience (I caught a glimpse of actor Patrick Stewart), with so many younger adults, responded with an enthusiastic ovation. Another great night at the opera! Brooklyn Academy of Music reopened with Caruso in Faust 1908 and continues with Anna Nicole in 2013. Faust seeking youth and Anna Nicole the "American dream" in vain! May the New York City Opera and BAM flourish for many decades to come!