The Jerry Springer: The Opera people take on the story of Anna Nicole Smith, “former stripper, Playmate of the year, single mom.” I mean, what really could go wrong? It’s not like I don’t already hate pretty much every modern opera I’ve ever seen and that this wasn’t just a blatant attempt to sex up the Royal Opera House with some more of that moronic celebrity-worshiping mentality that’s currently stinking up the West End.
Except, well, I loved it. It was really fun and lighthearted and blasted the cobwebs right out of the dusty old hall. From the excessive swearing on stage to the heaving, much-younger crowd in the seats, everything was new and different and exciting. The audience laughed! Frequently! There was a chorus and what they said was interesting! And funny!
Okay, well, I have to be honest and admit … the music. It was still kind of the same old boring modern opera stuff that just doesn’t ever grab you (well, me) or send you home with a spring in your step and a tune in your heart. Mark-Anthony Turnage did not give us a “Jerry Springer Moment” (fair enough as it was lyricist Richard Thomas who composed the music for that show) but I wish he could have done a little more to put some musical into the music.
Fortunately, the lyrics, story, and staging loomed so high – spilling all the way up the curtain (hot pink!) and to the image of Anna Nicole floating over the orchestra pit – that it was hard to get a head of steam about the notes coming out of people’s mouth (and the orchestra pit). Instead, we were sucked into a comi-tragic tale of a girl with not much going for her who tries to make a life in which she is, and means, something. It could have all been very ugly – wanting fame without accomplishment isn’t very admirable – but she’s built up very sympathetically, with an evil lawyer (Gerald Finley) taking most of the blame for the camera-chasing while Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) is supposedly just trying to get herself and her son out of poverty.
Yet despite the comic-book level of jokiness and crass humor, I felt we were shown very plainly just what a real soul-crushing situation being poor is. Stepfathers who try to grab you, men who get angry when you get pregnant, relatives with dead end lives who only show interest if you have money … a lifetime of working at WalMart, smiling at people who sneer at you and hoping you never get sick because you don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to go to the hospital. Really, if this is what you have to look forward to, why not be a stripper? I mean, hey, in this country, aren’t they trying to push it on poor unemployed women anyway? (How long before they just tell all poor women to get jobs as prostitutes?) Stripping is ethical and if you want to be a success, gigantic boobs is the way to go. And when you think about it, Anna Nicole didn’t lie or cheat or backstab or hurt other people to get out of poverty … she just took what little she had and tried to make the most of it.
Meanwhile, we’re treated to a series of songs that illustrate and frequently amuse – songs about not having boobs, songs about the benefits of getting big boobs, songs about names for boobs (sense a theme?), songs about drugs, songs about what it takes to get by when your primary asset is your body – but underlying it all is this big fat sense of tragedy. Anna Nicole gets attention and money, but she’s still having to sell herself for it. She has pretty shoes and a big house, but her hold on these material objects is as tenuous as the grasp on life of her octogenarian husband (Alan Oke, in fine voice and looking good in gold lame’). We can all rejoice that she’s managed to get that wedding ring on her finger – and the marriage is the highlight of the brilliant act one – but what is left for her?
The answer is: getting old, getting fat, losing her money but trying to hang on. Act two becomes very sad, focused on her attempts to grasp or find more dough while she’s not really able to exert real control over her life. She’s pathetic and insipid on TV, but her lawyer just keeps encouraging her to go out and make a fool of herself, while dropping clues to journos about when they can find her getting out of a car and forgetting to wear panties. Wow, this is the big time? It seemed so fitting that we’d see this sad woman using the toilet on stage (like the pole dancers an opera house first for me). She was cheap, she was cheapened, she was disgusting. And yet all the way through … she stayed sympathetic. I was a little worn out at the end – even the giant nodding doggies couldn’t make her decline fun – but overall this is one of the most exciting operas I’ve ever attended, and I’m thrilled that I had the chance to see it.
(This review is for the performance that took place on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011. There are three more performances with the final on Friday March 4th. It’s sold out, but don’t worry; regular work with the F5 button will likely produce a seat.)