Review: ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera,’ Riotous But Shallow
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, March 2, 2018
As I sat watching Jerry Springer – The Opera unfold, I was struck by how much the content of the show helps to explain how we got to the painful political moment we now find ourselves in. If you think about it, a lot of it really started with reality TV: the dehumanization of others, the lack of civility in modern discourse, the worship of fame for fame’s sake.
Of course, few could have predicted in 2003, when Jerry Springer – The Opera premiered in England, that the most infamous of reality stars would, defying all logic and any pretense of decency, actually end up as our country’s chief executive. In this sense, Jerry Springer seems almost prophetic. Small wonder the folks at The New Group figured this would be an opportune time to finally bring Jerry Springer to New York City.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that a musical treatment of “The Jerry Springer Show” would need to be an opera. The people on the show are larger than life, with outsize actions and emotions. The operatic treatment not only mocks but also matches the heightened drama and inflated sense of self-importance of the show’s guests, as well and the feral nature of his typical audience members.
Composer/lyricist Richard Thomas and co-lyricist Stewart Lee seem to be asking a question: How are the travails of these ordinary folk any different from those of the denizens of high opera? Significantly, Jerry himself doesn’t sing during the first act of the show, as though he’s no longer in control of the tiger by the tail that he’s created, and can no longer match the ferocity of the circus animals he’s long since given up trying to tame.
Much of the comedy of Jerry Springer, and there’s a considerable amount, comes from the juxtaposition of high art and low vulgarity. But hearing four-letter words delivered with operative zeal gets old after a while. And once it does, it becomes clear that Thomas and Lee, like their titular character, aren’t really sure what to do with their creation.
Act one of Jerry Springer follows closely the format of the TV show, including satiric commercial breaks that would be a lot more funny if they weren’t so creepily spot-on. Act two imagines Jerry’s descent into Hell, and features an alternately banal and confusing battle as God and Satan vie for Jerry’s soul. If you’re going to perpetrate the umpteenth variation on the Faust legend, you had better have something new to say, which Thomas and Lee apparently have not.
The New Group production, directed by John Rando, features a fiercely intimate thrust staging that almost forces you to be complicit in the horror that unfolds. The energy of the show never waivers, thanks in part to an unusually strong cast of 17 with trained operatic voices and an almost maniacal commitment to character.
Terrance Mann as Jerry looks sufficiently put upon and overwhelmed by the proceedings, and almost makes him a sympathetic character. Will Swenson is sharp as always as Satan himself. Jill Paice makes for an especially loopy show guest with a penchant for spanking and infantilism. Tiffany Mann virtually steals the show with her high-decibel take on a show guest who dreams of becoming a pole dancer.
Jerry Springer – The Opera has recently been extended through April 1, 2018. It’s worth taking in if you’re just looking for raucous fun. Just don’t expect it all to add up to anything particularly meaningful.
Jerry Springer – The Opera presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, through April 1, 2018. Music and lyrics by Richard Thomas; book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas. Directed by John Rando; choreography by Chris Bailey; scenic design by Derek McLane; costume design by Sarah Laux; lighting design by Jeff Croiter; sound design by Joshua D. Reid; projection design by Olivia Sebesky; orchestrations by Greg Anthony Rassen; music direction by Michael Brennan; wig, hair and make-up design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas; fight direction by Jacob Girgolia-Rosenbaum.
Cast: Terrence Mann (thru 3/11), Matt McGrath (starting 3/13), Will Swenson, Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras, Sean Patrick Doyle, Bradley Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Justin Keyes, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, and Nichole Turner.
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Cover: (l. to r.) Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle in ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera;’ photo: Monique Carboni.