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‘Anna Nicole,’ opera review

 Sarah Joy Miller in a Scene from City Opera’s ‘Anna Nicole,’ composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and presented at BAM.

Stephanie Berger Photography

Sarah Joy Miller in a Scene from New York City Opera’s ‘Anna Nicole,’ composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and presented at BAM.

Garish and girlish, tawdry and touching, the ill-fated bombshell Anna Nicole Smith always got our attention — just like the new opera based on her life and death.

The in-your-face “Anna Nicole” made its American premiere Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House in a swift-moving evening of soaring arias and heaving (fake) bosoms.

The harmonious arranged marriage of high art and low culture jump-started the fall season in a co-production of BAM and the desperately cash-strapped New York City Opera, which must raise $ 7 million by the end of the month or let the curtain close for good.

That do-or-die reality — along with Smith’s crazy life story — packed the house with stars including “Star Trek” captain Patrick Stewart, “The Lion King” queen Julie Taymor and songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Sarah Joy Miller with Robert Brubaker, who plays tycoon hubby J. Howard Marshall III

Stephanie Berger Photography

Sarah Joy Miller with Robert Brubaker, who plays tycoon hubby J. Howard Marshall III

All eyes and and ears were on Manhattan soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who never left the stage as she brought the sad and sultry Smith to life with winning relish, gusto and a touch of Texas barbecue twang.

The British creators, who debuted the show at London’s Royal Opera in 2011, were guided by a clear directive in this very entertaining work: Don’t take out the trash.

“Anna Nicole” is a seedy Cinderella story that begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with a body bag. Between those points we see the doomed Playboy Playmate’s crummy Texas upbringing, game-changing pumpkin-sized breast implants and a fairy godfather, in the guise of 89-year-old billionaire tycoon J. Howard Marshall III (a fine Robert Brubaker).

He’s the creaky sugar daddy who married Smith when she was 26. When he died, she found herself battling his family, her weight (cue the fat suit) and pills before she overdosed at 39.

The real Anna Nicole Smith poses for a magazine photo layout in 2004.

REUTERS

The real Anna Nicole Smith poses for a magazine photo layout in 2004.

The easy-to-grasp, if lazily linear book by Richard Thomas (“Jerry Springer: The Opera”) captures it all, with the exception of the Playboy days, likely due to licensing issues. He doesn’t shy from crude language and sexual displays. One scene finds Smith on her knees, then a maid suggestively freshens her up.

Ick.

Also icky is any time the villainous Howard K. Stern (Rod Gilfry), Smith’s lawyer, appears on stage.

In contrast, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music is rich and lovely. Swirling strings recall old Hollywood films. Bluesy chords come on cue to underscore Smith’s early struggles. Vibrant choruses toll with a touch of Broadway and Stephen Sondheim.

'Anna Nicole' is a production of New York City Opera, a company under financial pressure that is seeking to raise $  7 million by the end of the month to continue operations.

Stephanie Berger Photography

‘Anna Nicole’ is a production of New York City Opera, a company under financial pressure that is seeking to raise $ 7 million by the end of the month to continue operations.

Director Richard Jones’ visuals are equally adventuresome and colorful. The dominant hue is pink, including carpets on BAM’s outside steps. In one inspired scene, Smith wakes up on an enormous mattress — it all but fills the stage — with her doomed son and ancient husband. She’s made her bed; they all lie in it.

The two-hour opera is streaked with humor. But it goes deeper as an indictment of fame. Smith, an early reality TV star, is hounded by media and prying eyes. She’s followed by dancers in black unitards with cameras stuck on their heads — “Equus” meets “Mummenschanz.” Hers was a life observed, constantly. But never by Smith herself. She careened from one moment to the next — never even a little in control.

Fittingly, Smith’s venomous mother, Virgie (a terrific Susan Bickly, who reprises her role from the London run), almost gets the final say. Her late aria turns her daughter’s story into a cautionary tale.

But fortunately, the creators do Smith right. They give her the last word in a line that’s naughty and nice. And exactly right.

Let’s hope it’s not the last word for City Opera.

jdziemianowicz@nydailynews.com


Music & Arts – NY Daily News

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