Jerry Springer the Opera is profane, vulgar, obvious, offensive and irresistibly entertaining – at least in the first act, when it offers a high art version of the TV talk show that has aimed low since 1991. The New Group production, directed by John Rando and featuring a pitch-perfect 17-member cast led by Terrence Mann and Will Swenson, contrasts the high and the low to hilarious effect.
After Act I of this sung-through musical, though, it’s easy to wonder: What’s the point?
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
Near the start, a disclaimer rolls quickly up the video monitors on stage. “Polite announcement: The Jerry Springer Show may contain adult themes or strong language. Viewers with a strong moral centre may experience ethically compromising bursts of pleasure.”
That more or less nails it as the Warm-up Man (Swenson) tells the “studio audience” the rules (“No throwing things or throwing up”)
The studio audience, crassly dressed members of the cast, keep up a running vulgar commentary throughout the show, and are summed up by the verse:
We eat, excrete and watch TV
But you are there for us Jerry
The Warm-Up Man then introduces Springer. Mann, using Springer’s spot-on voice of reason, is the only character who doesn’t sing. He plays host to three sets of guests, each with a secret they want to reveal on national television. Dwight (Luke Grooms) is cheating on his fiancée Peaches with her best friend Zandra and a transsexual, Tremont; they come out on stage one by one, exchanging vulgarities with the studio audience. Montel (Justin Keyes) tells his girlfriend “I want to be your baby, baby” — and he means it literally, stripping off his clothes to reveal a diaper. Shawntel (Tiffany Mann) a black woman reveals she wants to be a stripper. Her husband Chucky (Nathaniel Hackman) loudly disapproves. Jerry reveals Chucky’s secret – he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The act ends with a tap-dance routine by white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members, who sing the refrain that all the other guests have sung:
This is our Jerry Springer moment.
We don’t want this moment to die.
So dip us in chocolate
and throw us to the lesbians.
We don’t want this moment to die.
At the climax, Montel the diaper man, egged on by the Warm Up Man, accidentally shoots Jerry Springer. After intermission, Springer and his show have relocated first to Purgatory and then to Hell, where the show is recast with the same actors now portraying Satan, Jesus, Mary, God, Adam and Eve. These celestial beings often repeat the unmannerly bickering of the crass talk show guests whom the performers initially portrayed.
For one little apple on a little tree
We get a life of grief and misery.
She made me do it,
Made me do it.
Jerry Springer The Opera, written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, debuted in the UK’s National Theater in 2003, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical and much else besides. There were plans to bring it to Broadway that fell through. Fifteen years later, the actual Jerry Springer Show that the musical parodies (or imitates) no longer causes the ruckus it once did; several fellow audience members I asked at random didn’t know whether or not it is still on the air (It is.) But one can argue it has a renewed relevance – one that may well find the audience less receptive.
Jerry Springer shares a similar journey to Donald Trump, although in reverse. Springer was a campaign advisor to Robert Kennedy, and briefly the mayor of Cincinnati. We learn this in passing, but not why Springer abandoned politics for reality show theatrics. We also are offered only brief moments where Springer tries to justify the cheapening of civic manners that his show represents. A winged creature he calls his Inner Valkyrie, representing his conscience, at one point sings:
Jerry makes the morons fight
But how does Jerry sleep at night?
He replies the way the real Jerry Springer might reply – “no one is forced to do this show. Everyone gets an all-expenses paid stay in a three star hotel.”
After nearly 50 songs and (according to co-author Stewart Lee) 174 curse words, we leave the theater impressed with the stage craft, and entertained by the wonderful singing voices, but we leave not much more enlightened nor encouraged than had we been in the studio audience of the talk show itself.
Jerry Springer the Opera is on stage at the Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
(480 West 42nd Street, just east of 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through March 11, 2018
Tickets and details
Jerry Springer the Opera . Music and Lyrics by Richard Thomas . Book and Additional Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas . Choreography by Chris Bailey . Directed by John Rando . Cast: Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras, Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Justin Keyes, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terrence Mann, Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, Will Swenson and Nichole Turner . Scenic Design Derek McLane, Costume Design Sarah Laux, Lighting Design Jeff Croiter, Sound Design Joshua D. Reid, Projection Design Olivia Sebesky, Orchestrations Greg Anthony Rassen, Music Direction Michael Brennan, Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas, Fight Direction Jacob Girgolia-Rosenbaum . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.