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As soon as the lights go down, the yelling, hooting, and shout-outs begins. It’s a surprise that I wasn’t ready for, although this is something I should have been expecting. It’s exactly what this talk show was all about, back in the day. And it’s a perfect beginning for Jerry Springer: The Opera, one that lets us in on the joke within the first beat of the drum, turning the rowdy into the sublime. With an operatic style of sacred and awe-inspiring singing and a repetition of text that is typical of the genre, Richard Thomas (lyrics/Made in Dagenham) and Steward Lee (BBC2’s Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle), the writers of this silly and wildly satirical piece of musical theatre, which won four Olivier Awards including Best New Musical back in 2003 when it ran for 609 performances in England, skew the profane and ludicrous nature of the lyrics into something more than just a one-joke wonder. The musical is completely sung through in a pure operatic tone, with only two exceptions: the title character, Jerry, played by the magnificent Terrence Mann (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting), speaks directly to us, his audience throughout the production; and Steve (Billy Hepfinger), the security man who endears himself to us has a brief and very funny moment of dialogue that is as pitch perfect as the singing that surrounds them. But within moments of the initial song, “Overtly-ture“, the question that hangs over the proceedings is up for debate: “Would this joke last the 2 hours and 15 minute running time?” or would the hilarity die off once we tire of hearing “chick with a dick” sung with a classical heft over and over again. Luckily for us, this piece has a bit more to say that just the obvious.
There is a whole lot of fun to be had watching the rowdy crowd cheer and jeer the ridiculous guests of this one particular taping of the “Jerry Springer Show“, directed with a precise eye for mayhem by John Rando (Paper Mill’s The Honeymooners). The sneering and booing of the guests as they hunger for the glory that comes from airing their dirty little secrets on television has a certain level of genuine beauty and power, especially in the world we are living in today. The three separate stories that make up the first act, a cheating fiancé (Luke Grooms) who has a few too many secrets to tell, a handsome young man (Justine Keyes) who wants his girlfriend (Elizabeth Loyacano) to join him and his baby Jane (Jill Paice) in his infantile fetish, and a wife (Tiffany Mann) who has a dream that is polar opposite to her husband (Nathaniel Hackmann) and mother’s (Jennifer Allen), are spot on in satirizing the ridiculous talk show that is based on. Obscenities fly, but there are also moments of pure joy and fun. Three numbers standout in Act one; “This is My Jerry Springer Moment” sung with an amazing sense of soulfulness and wonder by Paice (Broadway’s An American in Paris) as Baby Jane, “I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful” sung with a sad longing by Loyacano (Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera) as the distraught Andrea, and the biggest number in the show, “I Just Wanna Dance” is knocked out of the park by the wondrous Mann (Encores’ Cabin in the Sky) as the delicious Shawntel. Beyond that, I don’t think I should give away any of the surprises that are to be had, because it is in these moments of shock and awe where this show lives and breathes. So be warned, and be prepared for more obscenities being thrown your way than one could have imagined in the lovely Pershing Square Signature Theatre House.
But it’s in the second act, which takes Jerry straight to his own personal and private hell, thanks to his manic and dual natured warm-up man, the perpetually annoying (in a great kind of way) and wonderfully evil Will Swenson (Waitress, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert). In a confusing and oddly structured bit of stage mayhem, choreographed with an outlandish dementia by Chris Bailey (Menier’s Assassins), orchestrated around the diaper-wearing Montel, played by a fun and somewhat sexy and talented Keyes (Broadway’s Mary Poppins), that Jerry finds himself thrust into the netherworld, without a clue how this will all turn out. He finds himself forced to arbitrate a debate between the slightly infantile Jesus (Keyes) and the Devil (Swenson), that fluctuates moment to moment between witty, dull, and the ridiculous. This overly long act starts to feel a bit heavy handed and complicated, loosing its sharp edge for something less finely tuned. It is in this second half, taking place in a television studio deep down in Hades, designed perfectly by Derek McLane (New Group’s Sweet Charity), with lighting by Jeff Crotier (Broadway’s Bandstand) and costumes by Sarah Laux (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), that the show started to falter a bit and loose it’s own sense of faith. Many have protested this show over the years for this particular blasphemous scenario that ushers in Jesus, Satan, Adam, Eve, and the Virgin Mary to the armchairs of a Springer stage guest spot, bickering with each other over blame and a personal need for a reconciliation that will never come. It seems as ridiculous as this scenario to be upset by all the antics on stage, but I guess some people just need to be upset. That is until God, heavenly played by Grooms (Fulton Theatre’s Sweeney Todd), singing the majestic number, “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” throws one more preverbal log on the fire, lighting the way to more scandalous creations. None that are worthy of a picket line, I will add, but don’t get me started, or ask how it all turns out, cause I ain’t saying.
Jerry Springer: The Opera wants us all to see these trashy characters with some degree of respect as funny figures of passion, clamoring to be seen and heard in all their glory. Give them their 10 seconds of fame or infamy, it’s all the same to them. And even as the shock value of some of these vile and silly phrases straight from the “Jerry Springer” horse’s mouth being sung to the rafters feels a bit dated and passé, their trials and tribulations, however base, translated into song and song, are elevated with glee and hilarity. You will laugh, with a smug understanding that these people are not, luckily, us. But the playfulness and wit within this joyfully well-orchestrated (music direction: Michael Brennan; orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen) and sung musical, that mixes a Broadway level professionalism with a classical air of musicality, will seize the day, and win your smiling heart. God help you.