Jerry Springer - The Opera hits New York
The dictionary, so often cited as a reference by high school debaters, defines opera as a dramatic story set to music. By that standard, Jerry Springer - The Opera, presented by The New Group and now playing off Broadway at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, most definitely qualifies. But so too, then, does the all singing episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, just to put things in perspective.
But why be churlish when songs like "Diaper Man," "Him Am The Devil" and the production number, "This is My KKK Moment," tune up this gleefully lewd production? In fact, you would be advised to just sit back and be a complicit member of the audience that comes pre-stocked with an immensely talented group of misfits longing for their 15 seconds of fame.
As if to let us know that the term opera is not being used, dare we say, capriciously, Springer's creators, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, have given Jerry his own Valkyrie, a warrior/goddess who represents his better self. Costumed for what looks to be a Las Vegas Ring Cycle, she makes a brief appearance and then vanishes. Then there is Satan himself acting as his own commendatore, with whom Jerry has a Hell-bent tug of war. With a first act that is really one continuous mad scene and the second, graced with a brief barbed wire leitmotif, you've gotten a grip on the show's opera bona fides.
Singer evokes Broadway as well as opera; most obviously with oversized foam pointed fingers in homage to the "Razzle Dazzle" pastiche from Chicago. It also makes a brazen grab for the outrageousness of "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers, with its KKK production number.
After the show opened in the West End in 2003 and toured the UK to a flurry of protests in 2006, I forgot about it. Then it appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall in 2008 and it still hadn't beeped back on to my radar. But a few weeks ago, when I was waiting for the house to open for Edward Albee's At Home At The Zoo, that shares a lobby and convivial café with Springer at the Pershing Square Signature Center that houses the Linney, I overheard an exchange that Springer had more cursing in it than The Book of Mormon. That piqued my interest.
Some quick research revealed that Springer uses one unprintable explicative almost 300 times. But statistics can be misleading; the number of cast members singing it at one time multiplied the usage. Is an obscenity, when joyously sung instead of hissed as a linguistic fricative, still obscene? I'm only asking.
Terrance Mann as Jerry Singer has an unsophisticated poise and a weary arrogance that is perfect for his TV audience. Will Swenson is genuinely creepy as Springer's warm-up man. He makes such a spectacular Satan in the second act, that hot and cool adjectives must be applied simultaneously.
As for those fame-seeking misfits, they make up a terrific ensemble, one and all. Individually they create some of the most feral creatures you are likely to meet outside an early John Waters film.
Standing out among the many game women, clothed in Sarah Laux's perfectly ill conceived costumes, is the show-stopping belter, Tiffany Mann as trashy Shawantel, a would-be pole dancer in the first act and in the second, an equally trashy Eve (as in Adam and…) Florrie Bagel's Peaches, the nutty and naïve fiancée of Dwight, one slug of a guy, and Beth Kirkpatrick's Zandra, Dwight's slutty other woman, are a couple of doozies. These Jerry Springer guests flaunt their disadvantages with unfettered but finely tuned abandon. The guilty pleasure is ours.
The robust tenor, Luke Groom, who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, plays Dwight and later portrays a Colonel Sanders inspired God. The handsome voiced baritone, Nathaniel Hackmann saunters in as Chucky, who has issues with Shawantel's pole dancing. Justin Keys as Montel, who wants to be his girlfriend's baby, as in infant, has the voice and demeanor of a choirboy gone mad. He rocks a diaper in the first act and, as Jesus, a biblically inspired sarong in the second.
Jill Paice, a veteran of Broadway and the West End, plays Baby Jane, a disturbed and disturbing doll come to life. Her sweet yet steely voiced toddler dispels any association with that other Baby Jane. With fetishistic loveliness she triumph in her big bubble number and later with a wrench in the head.
Then there is Sean Patrick Doyle, who slinks about as a pencil-thin Mick Jaeger concoction named Tremont who is yet another of Dwight's liaisons and then the Angel Gabriel, both of fluid gender and tasty wickedness. Finally, a shout out goes to Billy Hepfinger, as Steve, Springer's security man, and the only seemingly sane person on stage.
If you're wondering where God, Satan and Jesus plus Mary and a few angels are going with the second act, you'll have to see the show. The first act emanates from an episode of the Jerry Springer Show. That is quite enough. We would not welcome another episode so it is a relief to report that Jerry and company go beyond the studio for the second act.
Jerry Springer - The Opera has been extended through April 1, with Matt McGrath taking over for Mr. Mann to finish the run.