When the lights go up, Californian opera singer Angel Blue is swaying on a podium and cackling like a conquering Cleopatra; but as the story of her character Lulu unfolds we get a dozen costume changes and the story of a woman who is half Hottentot Venus, half Foxy Brown.
Set against the backdrop of New York and New Orleans during the civil rights era, the story of Lulu's life is recounted episodically in terms of the men she got mixed up with, most of whom came to a sticky end (one way or another). It's a twisted, sexy story, as nutty as a family size jar of Sun-Pat, though ultimately – as with any narrative that's basically a list (duet after duet after duet) – it does become wearing by the end.
Angel Blue is magnetic and the crisp staging with projections on a beaded screen is perfectly judged (great design work by Mada Willi and video by Finn Ross). It's also a treat to see opera staged in an intimate and vital venue like the Young Vic – with a 26 piece orchestra too.
The main problem here, however, is that the opera only half-works. Perhaps this isn't surprising considering its evolution – a play by Wedekind set in the 19th century, updated by composer Alban Berg to the 1930s, and now reconceived as a feminist, black-power parable by Olga Neuwirth. If that sounds like a rich lasagna, let's just say that some horse meat has got in somewhere along the way. The snatches of Martin Luther King feel largely irrelevant and you can't help feeling that opera might just be the wrong medium for this particular setting of the story. When Lulu's lover Eleanor slinks on stage and gets the full jazzy Gershwin-inflected instrumentation, only then does the the singing truly match. There is plenty here to enjoy and think about but maybe stronger emphasis on the comedic aspect would have made it an easier ride.
American Lulu is on at the Young Vic until 24 September, tickets £10-£32.50. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.