By Stanford Friedman
Going into Jerry Springer – The Opera, I was concerned that it might feel dated. After all, it was first produced 15 years ago and is based on a talk show that has been around since 1992. I should not have been worried. Raunch never goes out of style and this work is as hilariously and unapologetically dirty as can be. Sacrilege has an unlimited shelf life and, here, Christianity takes a licking before a surprisingly effective spiritual redemption at the end of the night. Plus, there is no shortage of talent. Rocking a mostly veteran cast of 17, the relatively intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre currently boasts more vocal brilliance per square foot than any other room in the city.
The overarching joke of the night is the same one that gives the show’s title its snap: low humor elevated to high art. This is a true opera, sung through with some 41 numbers. But, it’s redneck opera. Act One is a take no prisoners satire of The Jerry Springer Show in its heyday. Tramps, strippers, racists, bereaved parents and jilted lovers sing breathtaking duets and arias with the foulest language receiving the most glorious treatment. Of course, this contrast can sometimes be a dilemma for even a very game audience. Perhaps the funniest moment of the night came when the crowd could not figure out how hard to applaud a song sung beautifully by a fetishist named Montel (Justin Keyes) that, nonetheless, was a crude elegy to the joys of excrement. And yes, the number did contain a scat section, with “Doo Doo” being the predominantly sung phrase.
The second half of the evening takes place in the underworld, because in opera you can do that sort of thing. With his own soul on the line, Jerry (Terrence Mann) is called upon to host a very special episode to settle some very old scores, with guests including Adam, Eve, Satan, Jesus and God. Turns out, religious icons are just as obscene and screwed up as any mortal or, as Jerry puts it, “Jesus, grow up for Christ’s sake.” When not chastising the Savior, Jerry is portrayed as being very Christ-like himself. The authors Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas establish him as a common man with noble ambitions (Springer was a campaign advisor to Robert Kennedy and a mayor of Cincinnati), who is not quite sure how he ended up a messiah for the angry mobs who came to hear his word. Mann underplays the role winningly, rising up at the end to proclaim, “Everything that lives is holy.”
Among the company’s embarrassment of riches, Will Swenson shines with limitless energy as both Satan and Jerry’s Warm-Up Man. Jennifer Allen kills as both a stripper’s mother and Mother Mary. If God is a tenor, S/he would have no problem with the rich voice of Luke Grooms. And Tiffany Mann, as the pole dancer Shawntel, stops the show with her spectacular belting voice. Choreographer Chris Bailey dares some large dance numbers on the small stage and pulls them off with aplomb. In a clear homage to Mel Brooks, there is a chorus of tap dancing Klansmen that echo the tapping Nazis in the classic “Springtime for Hitler” number from The Producers.
The theater size is actually perfect for a play ostensibly set in a TV studio (though the musicians crammed above and behind the stage may disagree). Director John Rando makes full use of the space by seating his ensemble in two rows of the house when they are not busy onstage. What they are losing in ticket sales they make up for in audience involvement. With the ringers cheering on Jerry and his guests from the house, the paying members of the audience can’t help but to get drawn in, emotionally and physically. When an Off-Broadway audience can be convinced to do the wave, you know you have scored a hit.
Jerry Springer – The Opera: Music and Lyrics by Richard Thomas, Book & Additional Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, Directed by John Rando.
WITH: Jennifer Allen (Irene/Mary), Florrie Bagel (Peaches), Brandon Contreras (Ensemble), Sean Patrick Doyle (Tremont / Angel Gabriel), Brad Greer (Ensemble), Luke Grooms (Dwight / God), Nathaniel Hackmann (Chucky / Adam), Billy Hepfinger (Steve), Justin Keyes (Montel / Jesus), Beth Kirkpatrick (Zandra), Elizabeth Loyacano (Andrea / Angel Michael), Terrence Mann (Jerry Springer), Tiffany Mann (Shawntel / Eve), Jill Paice (Baby Jane), Kim Steele (Valkyrie / Ensemble), Will Swenson (Warm-Up Man / Satan), Nichole Turner (Ensemble).
Choreography by Chris Bailey, Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Sarah Laux, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by Joshua D. Reid, Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky and Fight Direction by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum; Michael Brennan, Music Direction; Orchestrations by Greg Anthony Rassen. Production Stage Manager: James Harker. The New Group at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200, https://www.thenewgroup.org/jerryspringertheopera.html. Through March 11. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.