The New Group’s production of JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA explodes as outrageous moral fantasia, lewd, cultural carnival, and black-humored political satire in the first, New York full staging of the British 2003 Olivier-award winning musical. Perfectly conceived for a wide thrust stage and ingeniously directed by John Rando, the theater space at Pershing Square Signature Center transforms into TV studio. We theatergoers become Springer’s live audience. Springer’s guests emerge, literally, from the audience of us. When Springer, played by Terence Mann with a talkshow host’s unctuous blend of innocuous banality and detached curiosity asserts “I don’t solve problems… I just televise them”, it’s clear where the show’s moral crosshairs focus. And when Springer defensively laments that his show isn’t trash but a platform for “the marginalized and dispossessed”, the phenomenon of how a reality TV star both championed socially and exploited politically a population of “losers” sits like the elephant in the room.
Opening the proceedings is Springer’s Warm-Up Man played with adrenalized macho by Will Swenson. With the audience red-meat ready for spousal conflict and physical violence, American flotsam and talkshow fodder enter. Dwight, the sheepish, bisexual philanderer admits to girlfriend Peaches he is not only cheating with her best friend from grade school but also with the cross-sexed Tremont, played by Sean Patrick Doyle, who with a diva’s vocal virtuosity sings the tale of a chick-with-a-dick in “Talk To the Hand". Next up, Montel, a diapered, coprohillic husband admits to his All-American wife, Andrea, that his fetishistic soulmate, Baby Jane, likes to get spanked, too. Shawntel, an overweight and sexually unsatisfied wife who dreams of being a pole dancer avenges her un-endowed husband by outing him as KKK member. As Shawntel, Tiffany Mann stops the show with a soaring, soulful aria “I Just Wanna Dance”. Act 1 concludes with a hilarious, tap dancing chorus line of Klanners singing “This is My KKK Moment”: everybody gets their Jerry Springer 15 minutes of fame. Thanks to choreographer Chris Bailey, forget the quaint old ladies with walkers in The Producers. In an onstage brawl, Springer gets shot.
The defining asset of this production is that it is supremely sung. Indeed, the story with over 40 “songs” is sung-through completely (with the exception of Springer’s on-air hosting and interstitial commentary) to an intricate, sophisticated score by Richard Thomas and witty lyrics (replete with profanity or vulgarity depending on your cultural p.o.v.) by Stewart Lee, who wrote the book . The musical numbers evoke Baroque chorals, contemporary Gospel, and Italian opera. Think Puccini with lots of the “c” and “f” words.
Acts 2, 3 and 4, after an intermission, run through seamlessly, taking Springer from Purgatory to Hell, where he is visited by the doomed souls of the guests whose lives were ruined by their appearing on his show. Swenson’s Warm-Up Man re-appears as Satan, this time played with perfect sleazy ambisexuality. Satan forces Springer to recreate his talk show. When Jesus arrives as guest, the debate between Heaven and Hell erupts. Then Mary the Mother of Jesus, Adam and Eve, join the tempest. God arrives: Luke Groom, reprising his Carnegie Hall concert version role of 10 years ago with Pavarotti power, brings down the house leading a glorious anthem “It Ain’t Easy Being Me’. Springer atones as honestly as he can. Hope in humanity prevails. (Really?)
In media-manic, Christian-phillic America, all sinners get redeemed, everybody gets a moral mulligan, just like you-know-who. JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA sings that out, grandly, blasphemously , with vulgar, knowing words of the devil and the marvelous exaltation of angels` voices.
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