- Jerry Springer: The Opera
- Music by Richard Thomas . Book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
- Directed by Keith Alan Baker
- Co-director/Choreography by Matthew Gardiner
- Produced by Studio 2ndStage
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Jerry Springer, television personality: inane, profane, insane. Studio Theatre’s Jerry Springer: The Opera: audacious, outrageous, stupendous.
Fasten your seatbelt. Do not attempt to stand while this roller coaster is in motion. This ride has been value engineered to shock, rock, offend and entertain.
Jerry Springer may well be father to a certain variety of “reality show” programming in television. For that alone he should burn in hell. And Studio Theatre provides him with that opportunity. Seriously, it is no secret that Studio, renowned for its cutting-edge contemporary drama, also excels in the production of groundbreaking and challenging musicals (e.g., A New Brain, Caroline, Or Change, Reefer Madness, etc.). When it comes to diving, Studio prefers the high board. Jerry Springer: The Opera is an Olympic-caliber leap from outer space into a thimble of water. Yes! Other theaters entering their third decade might become comfortable, fat and lazy, risk-averse. Studio is as raw and genius as in its earliest seasons.
In their screenplay for My Man Godfrey, Morrie Ryskind and Eric Hatch wrote the memorable line, “All it takes to make an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” Director Keith Allen Baker and co-director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner know all the right people, starting with Lawrence Redmond as Jerry Springer and Bobby Smith in the dual role as Springer’s warm up comedian Jonathan Weriz and Beelzebub. If you caught their performances in Studio’s Reefer Madness: The Musical, you know that there are no two better actors at playing decidedly unhinged characters. Weriz works the audience to the fever pitch required to produce the daily trash spectacle and gets fired for his effort.
From the trio of bouncers flanking the talk show set to the motley misfits in the audience, Jerry Springer: The Opera captures the essence of its source material. The first act recreates three show episodes, one dysfunctional family feud spectacle after another. The show is almost entirely sung through, although Jerry does not so much as hum a note.
Imagine if you will the lowest and most lurid dialog sung by some of DC’s finest talent. The enormous cast is uniformly terrific, especially the featured performers, but a few of the roles grab one’s attention like a multi-car pile-up on the side of the freeway. Aaron Reeder plays transsexual home wrecker, Tremont, who is not going to take any disrespect from the audience. Tremont is the other, other woman –his man is on The Jerry Springer Show to confess that he’s cheating on his fiancee and his mistress. Ron Curameng, whose gorgeous voice can be heard with the Washington National Opera and whose performance in Toby’s Miss Saigon garnered him a Helen Hayes nomination, plays Montel, a sweetheart of a guy in search of a little mothering and a diaper change. You will NEVER forget this performance. Trust me. He plays the role with the simplicity and unselfconsciousness you might expect someone singing in My Fair Lady, all the while sporting a nappy and very graphically crooning about the joys of a certain bodily function. He also has a long-term girlfriend, Andrea (Janine Gulisano-Sunday) and a playmate, Baby Jane (Florrie Bagel) on the side. Gulisano-Sunday has the oddball role in this production as the only character approaching normality. Rachell Zampelli as Shawntell, is up next with her better half and her mom. Shawntell yearns to express her art in the form of pole dancing. Gotta dance, Gotta dance.
You are probably beginning to think, “This sounds a bit like A Chorus Line.” Yes, hopefuls auditioning for their 15 minutes of fame. Throw in Greek chorus of trailer trash, hair-pulling skirmishes, a fully-hooded KKK syncopated tap routine, and firearms, and you get the picture. And don’t forget the Valkyrie (Patricia Portillo), serving as Springer’s superego, who regularly interrupts the proceedings with her trenchant comments.
Act II finds Redmond still as Springer, with the rest of the cast flakking for Heaven or Hell. Wetiz (Smith) returns as Satan, looking quite stunning in black leather and flaming red, and puts Springer to the ultimate test to save his … his what? The deeply narcissistic Springer is not particularly soulful. Chucky (Russell Sunday), the bubba grand dragon in Act I, returns as Adam with Zampelli as his troublemaking Eve. Diaper-clad Montel is Jesus, Shawntells’ Bible-thumping momma (Melynda Berdette) plays his mother, Mary, serial philanderer Dwight (Michael Nansel) is the Supreme Being, the remaining principals are angels, and the bouncers and audience members bring up the rear as demons. Satan has been hurt and deserves an apology. Attention must be paid.
Attention is bound to be paid to this extraordinary production. Like the cast recording of Avenue Q (“The Internet Is for Porn”), your not likely to play Jerry Springer: The Opera on your computer at work, but I defy you to rid your mind of songs “Talk to the Hand,” “This is My Jerry Springer Moment,” “Mama Give Me Smack on the A**hole,” “Eat, Excrete and Watch TV,” and “Jerry Eleison”.
Now you’ve probably heard two things about the show. First, that it was a major success in London, running over 600 performances and winning major theatre awards. Second, there have been spirited protests concerning the “religious” depictions in the show, including attempts to stop a national television broadcast and to intimidate local theaters into cancelling productions. This situation reminds me of the first time I saw the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on television. An opening screen displayed a warning to the effect that some sensitive individuals might find the content and language offensive or objectionable. Which, of course, is exactly the opposite, psychologically speaking. Insensitive folks might well be up in arms, but only “sensitive” individuals would UNDERSTAND the work.
Jerry Springer: The Opera has something to offend everyone, to be sure, if you are of a mind to take offense. This is an hilarious satire of a slice of real-life Americana. It’s a two and a half hour window into popular culture and mass audience taste (and I use the term loosely). Sally Jesse, Montel, Maury, Dr. Phil and so on. God love ‘em all, I hope each one gets an opera of his own.
- Running Time: 2.5 hours
- When: thru August 17th. Wed – Sat at 8:30, Sun at 7:30
- Where: Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC
- Tickets: $39. Call 202 332-3300 or visit the website.
Related: Our interview with Lawrence Redmond