REVIEW: At last, “Jerry Springer—The Opera”
“Jerry Springer—The Opera”, which premiered in London in 2003 and won the Olivier Award for best musical, has finally arrived in New York in a full-fledged production by The New Group directed by John Rando (“On the Town”, “Urinetown”).
At first blush it sounds a bit silly, but it turns out that the depraved, low-rent, and crass melodrama of “The Jerry Springer Show”, which, to my surprise, has run continuously on daytime television since 1991, is ripe material for a satirical operatic musicalization given its heightened characters, simultaneously shocking and predictable revelations, and bursts of profanity and violence. Tabloid TV as opera works, at least for 15 minutes or so, before becoming one-note.
Veteran actor Terence Mann (“Pippin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Les Miserables”, “Cats”) heads a large and terrifically talented cast, nailing the rich voice and detached disposition of Jerry Springer in a spot on characterization that avoids caricature and provides a soothing and grounding ballast to an otherwise untethered show. He’s flanked by a black polo shirt clad Billy Hepfinger as Steve Wilkos, head of security, and Will Swenson (“Waitress”, “Hair”) as a fictional “warm-up man” who causes a stir. The rest of the motley cast play audience members, sitting in the front rows, and guests on the show with an unending and seamless cycle of masterful costume and wig changes (costumes by Sarah Laux; wig, hair, and makeup design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas).
As the comedy sketch-like act one unfurls on a faithful reproduction of Springer’s iconic television set—with its exposed brick wall backdrop, industrial columns, and stencil font logo (sets by Derek McLane)—Springer, always reading from cards, gingerly invites his guests to tell their “guilty secrets”, the adding of a chair onstage portending new mischief to come with each new guest. In three vignettes we get: man concurrently cheating on wife with both her crack-addicted best friend and a “chick with a dick”; man who wants girlfriend to engage in “diaper play” as he’s secretly done with another partner named “Baby Jane”; and a black housewife (a stunning Tiffany Mann) whose pole dancing hobby meets with disapproval from her KKK member hubby and her Bible-thumping mother.
All are archetypical fare for “The Jerry Springer Show”, but as a sign of how far we’ve come, or fallen, as a society, the profanity-laced songs—and this “opera” is mostly sung—and elaborate situations that might have been shocking in 2003 now feel twee and humorless, with, perhaps, the exception of a chorus line of tap dancing KKK members, hoods and all. To mimic the experience of watching the television show, two commercial breaks are acted out ala SNL, featuring advertisements for absurdly named drugs and products. Act two attempts to elevate the story and its message by sending Springer to hell, where he hosts a special “conflict resolution” edition of his show with Satan, Jesus, Adam and Eve, Mary, and God as guests in a scene that goes on way too long and haltingly finds a muddled resolution.
British authors Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee skewer Americans who “eat, excrete, and watch TV”, pointedly declaring that however vulgar and indecent the guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” may be, “Jerry didn’t make it so, he just holds a mirror to it”—a fact that can hardly be disputed but remains too understated and insufficiently explored to make a lasting impact and overcome the surrounding schtick.
Springer says “everyone deserves a voice”, and that he provides a platform for the “marginalized and dispossessed” who just want their “Jerry Springer moment”, a chance to be on TV with the attendant glamour of an all-expense paid stay at a three star hotel. It’s all a little sad, lame, spectacular, and tacky at the same time, and the tonal harmony of the piece ends up treating the material of act one too seriously and act two not seriously enough.
Though enjoyable and constantly entertaining—the music, in particular, is quite excellent—and staged and performed with cleverness and gusto, my “final thoughts” are that after a 15 year wait, “Jerry Springer—The Opera” is a tad formulaic, overly artificial, too often gratuitously and humorlessly vulgar, and well past its “sell by” date—much like the television show that inspired it. After all, who needs Jerry Springer when we have Donald Trump as president?
Bottom Line: after a 15 year wait, “Jerry Springer—The Opera” has finally arrived in New York in a spectacular and profane production with an excellent cast headed by Terence Mann; unfortunately, the shock value is low and the vulgarity gratuitous, and mostly humorless. The show’s value lies in its role as mirror to our society, but that point remains too understated and insufficiently explored to make a lasting impact.
“Jerry Springer—The Opera”
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: February 22, 2018
Final Performance: April 1, 2018
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