And the award for the most outrageous—and most outrageously entertaining—show currently running in New York goes to…Jerry Springer—The Opera. Boasting expletive-filled songs by British composer Richard Thomas and a racy, often blasphemous book by Stewart Lee and Thomas, the show gleefully exposes the ugly, trashy side of America.
Since Americans are currently trying to survive the presidency of a Fox News-watching former reality TV star, the time is definitely right for this button-pushing operatic musical.
But it wasn’t written recently. Based on the long-running syndicated talk show Jerry Springer, it ran in London from 2003 to 2005 and won four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. The show had a two-night run at Carnegie Hall in January 2008, but a commercial run never materialized. Regional theaters around the country have staged it.
For its Off Broadway production, the New Group has hired the ideal director, John Rando (Urinetown), who brings out every ounce of the show’s over-the-top humor. He has cast a fabulous ensemble headlined by Terrence Mann in the title role and Will Swenson as Warm-Up Man.
Bringing Up Baby
From the rousing opening number onwards, the cast sings the operatic music beautifully while behaving just as badly as the Jerry Springer TV show guests and audience members. A mixture of highbrow melodies and lowbrow swearing, insulting, and fighting propels the hilarious first act.
The transsexual Tremont (Sean Patrick Doyle) leads the ensemble in the jubilant “Talk to the Hand.” Next we meet Montel (Brandon Contreras, filling in for Justin Keyes at the performance I attended), who really wants his girlfriend to baby him. He struts around in a diaper while singing “Diaper Man.”
As Baby Jane—another diaper-wearer—the wonderful Jill Paice gets one of the best numbers, “This Is My Jerry Springer Moment,” and sings the heck out of it. Sample lyric: “So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians/ I don’t want this moment to die.”
As the plus-size pole dancer Shawntel, Tiffany Mann shows off her huge voice in “I Just Wanna Dance.” Her duet with Nathaniel Hackmann, who plays her disapproving boyfriend Chucky, is just as much fun. Its title? “Put Your F___ing Clothes On.”
Heaven and hell
For anyone who has seen the TV show (and you can still catch it on weekday afternoons), none of these songs are terribly shocking. On stage, as on TV, there are hair-pulling put-downs and takedowns. By the time Ku Klux Klan members tap-dance to “This Is My KKK Moment,” however, more than a few audience members’ jaws have dropped.
Believe it or not, the second act is even more outrageous. It takes place largely in purgatory, with Swenson now playing the Devil. Our hero, Jerry, has been shot and is fighting for his life. There are some funny jokes about heaven and hell, Adam and Eve, and other religious subjects, but by the time Mary, the mother of Jesus, becomes a target, it gets to be a bit much.
At times, Thomas’s songs strain too hard to be satirically sacrilegious. The second act would be better, and tighter, if it were cut by 10 minutes. Nonetheless, Jerry Springer—The Opera is a devilishly provocative and wickedly enjoyable musical.
Mann, who is nearly the only cast member to speak mostly instead of sing throughout the show, looks and acts the part of the infamous talk show host. The actor does finally sing near the end. (Thomas and Lee note that Springer has dabbled in politics; you can’t make this stuff up.)
Amid a top-notch cast, Swenson employs his rich baritone, his swagger, and his comic timing in one of his best theater performances.
Rando’s dynamic direction makes the most of the thrust stage, as well as the front rows of the audience, the aisles, and an upper level. Chris Bailey’s choreography is clever, too.
Needless to say, the foul-mouthed Jerry Springer—The Opera isn’t for anyone who is easily offended. But for those of us who need some shocking humor to get us through these dark reality-show times, this brilliantly executed production is theatrical heaven.
Jerry Springer—The Opera is at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets are available from Ticket Central. Tel: (212) 279-4200. Extended through April 1, with Matt McGrath taking over for Terrence Mann on March 13.