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.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
What the popular press says...
"Is New York finally ready to receive that great American messiah whom the masses hail as “Je-e-e-e-erry?” I mean the title character of the British-born musical “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” which opened on Thursday night in a divinely wrought, all-American reincarnation at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This sacred and profane oratorio of angel-winged songs about heaven, hell and a talk-show host has taken a while to find a berth in Manhattan. But now that it’s here, it soars like never before, in a New Group production that fully finds the compassion within this singular show’s surface satire."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"When they go low, we go at them with high art."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Its theology may not be deep, but beneath its sublime-to-ridiculous jokes, Jerry Springer—The Opera is onto something about reality-show culture and the poignancy behind its debased participants—which more or less includes all of us now. Oh, the absurdity! But oh, the humanity."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"Not surprisingly, the musical feels more than a little dated, with the talk-show host no longer on the cultural radar. (I was surprised to learn that the program is still on, and if "Stripper Takedown," the title of the Feb. 16 broadcast, is any indication, it hasn't gotten any less trashy.) On the other hand, the musical is really not so much about Springer in particular, but rather the lowbrow pop culture he represents."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...