Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: This Is My Jerry Springer Moment

By Michael Block 

Let's talk about Jerry Springer the Opera for a minute. The show features music by Richard Thomas and book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas. It originally ran for 609 performances between 2003 and 2005 in London. It ventured to New York City in 2008 for a Carnegie Hall concert. No matter where it's produced, controversy surrounds it. People picket or send hate messages complaining about the content and its so-called thematic attacks. The New Group has decided to bring Jerry Springer to New York once again, and we should be grateful. This production of Jerry Springer the Opera is exceptional to say the least.
Jerry Springer the Opera is exactly what the title says. Inspired by the infamous syndicated show, the opera follows an episode of "Jerry Springer" as the titular host welcomes a trio of fantastical sagas to the stage as they engage in fights, profanity, and revelations. But on this particular episode after the dancing KKK arrive, an angry man baby aiming for the Klan, accidentally shoots Jerry, sending him to hell. With an opera structure with the majority of the piece sung through, Jerry Springer the Opera is a brilliant philosophical and religious satire that uses the lens of American television gluttony as humans are exploited for our own entertainment. A morality play of sorts, this show unabashedly goes for the jugular, where no one is safe. Directed by John Rando, the musical moves swiftly through the satire like a fever dream of hilarity. With the exception of Jerry and a moment with Steve Wilkos, the entire show is operatic and sung through. With how Thomas writes the score, there is a likelihood that some words are lost in song. But Rando ensures the gravitas and clarity shine through Jerry. Content wise, we witness their stories. First is of an engaged couple where the guy cheats on his wife with her best friends, plural. Next, we have a man who enjoys dressing up as a baby, diaper and all, who falls for a woman who too dresses as a baby. His wife, is none too thrilled by this. Finally, we meet a woman who just wants to be a stripper and her mother and husband don't approve. Only he has a secret of his own as he is a member of the KKK. While we laugh at the buffoonery, Jerry Springer keeps a calm, cool, and collective demeanor allowing these people to have their Jerry Springer moment. Times have changed since Jerry Springer the Opera first came to the stage. Are there moments in the show that may not be too kosher nowadays? Totally. Does the show crave a little rewriting to remain relevant? Maybe. But it's the skeleton of the show that allows the show to stay resolute. Scenic designer Derek McLane sets the scene like the actual show while still bringing in some hints of theatricality. Costume designer Sarah Laux dresses the individuals in middle America attire that represent their character perfectly. The orchestrations from Greg Anthony Rassen work for the production but with a smaller ensemble and how the stage is set, it does fall on the thinner side. Rando stages the show in a manner that allows the actual audience to feel as if they are a part of the show. And for some, that's uncomfortable to say the least! With the ensemble seated in the front row on the sides, you likely miss some moments, but Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey expand the scene in the more musical moments.
photo by Monique Carboni
Terrence Mann had a Jerry Springer moment taking on the titular role to near perfection. His vocal inflections and mannerisms matched the talk show host quite well. Jill Paice is a beautiful, delicate performer. Baby Jane is a beautiful, delicate character. With a twist. The vulgarity of the lyrics Baby Jane is given amplifies the absurdity of Paice's performance. Who knew hearing Paice sing "Mamma gimme smack on the asshole" was the one thing I never knew I needed. "I Just Wanna Dance" is a showstopper of a song. It's been proven simply by how the song has served as a standalone anthem, especially in the LGBTQ community. Tiffany Mann takes on Shawntel's number with great purpose. As they say, she slayed. It's unfortunate that this was her shining moment in the show as she never quite reached that peak again. Will Senson as Warm-Up Man/Satan did what he does best. He went over-the-top.
Jerry Springer the Opera is a brazen work of art. It has the power to shock and offend. If you leave the theater not having your Jerry Springer moment, perhaps it may be time to lighten up and put things in perspective. Take a moment and dissect the material you just witnessed. I guarantee you'll discover why this show, though slightly dated, is an important piece of theater.