Thursday, March 1, 2018

168 (2017-2018): Review: JERRY SPRINGER--THE OPERA (seen February 28, 2018)

“Eat, Excrete, and Watch TV”

Often, when I get a haircut, my barber has the little TV near his chair turned to a tabloid talk show, usually Maury Povich’s, which forces me to watch the raw exchanges, sometimes leading to physical clashes, between its guests. Even more violence-prone, though, are the similarly outrageous shows of Jerry Springer, which have gained enormous popularity by prodding the hairy underbelly of American personal relationships for well over a quarter of a century.
Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Terrence Mann. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Since the “Jerry Springer Show” typically includes emotional outbursts of operatic proportions, it’s only natural that someone like British composer, book, and lyrics writer Richard Thomas, collaborating with book and lyrics writer Stewart Lee, would create Jerry Springer—The Opera. Although not entirely satisfactory, this sensationally well-staged (by John Rando), energetically choreographed (by Chris Bailey), marvelously cast (17 actors! Count ‘em), and brilliantly performed farcical opera—not entirely sung-through—exploits the TV show’s most egregious features.

You could say it’s payback for how Springer himself exploits the bizarre obsessions with sex, violence, or bathroom issues of his guests, whose mouths (bleeped for TV) have larger capacities to shoot crudities than AR-15s do to fire bullets.
Nathaniel Hackmann, Tiffany Mann, Billy Hepfinger (rear). Photo: Monique Carboni.
Jerry Springer—The Opera is only now making its formal New York premiere, in a production by The New Group. It first opened in London in 2003, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical, ran two years, then toured the UK, and made its US debut in Las Vegas, afterward playing at various regional theatres. It also received a concert performance at Carnegie Hall in 2008. During these years, it was burdened with censorship attempts (including lawsuits and picketing) by groups offended by its blasphemous religious material. (Book of Mormon, of course, does much the same thing and is almost as potty-mouthed.)

The Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center has been designed by Derek McLane to look like a TV studio, with the audience seated around three sides of a set closely replicating the program’s brick-walled set. Large monitors hang overhead in each corner and the audience members in the first row to the right and left are versatile actor-singers who serve as both a chorus and, with the help of a multitude of wig and costume changes, Jerry’s various guests.  

Before Jerry (Terrence Mann) himself enters, his slickly obnoxious warm-up man, Jonathan Wierus (Will Swenson)—who Jerry will soon fire for incompetence—puts the raucous audience in the mood. Meanwhile, Steve (Billy Hepfinger), a tall security guy based on Steve Wilkos, stands ready to handle anything that might get out of hand.
Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Then Jerry enters, signature cue cards in hand, wearing a blue suit and tieless pink shirt, to interview the first of the show’s guests. This will involve the cheating of a guy named Dwight (Luke Grooms) on Peaches (Florrie Bagel), not only with the trampy Zanda (Beth Kirkpatrick) but with transsexual Tremont (Sean Patrick Doyle). Plenty of action follows, especially when the women go rhino to rhino, forcing Steve to intercede.

Scatological comedy arrives with Andrea (Elizabeth Loyacano) and her boyfriend, Montel (Justin Keyes), who has a thing about being treated like a baby, especially the diaper-wearing part that lets him poop pleasurably in his pants. Montel's involved with Baby Jane (Jill Paice), whose fetish is dressing like a child.
Jill Paice (center). Photo: Monique Carboni.
Finally, we meet the pole-dancing Shawntel (Tiffany Mann), her KKK-member husband, Chucky (Nathaniel Hackmann), and his bizarro mother, Irene (Jennifer Allen). Things go nuts when the tap-dancing KKK itself arrives and the diaper-wearing Montel accidentally shoots Jerry.
Nathaniel Hackmann, Tiffany Mann. Photo: Monique Carboni.
When the audience returns after the intermission, the play, already losing steam, loses more as it shifts to pure fantasy with Jerry in Purgatory, where he meets the warm-up man he fired earlier but who now, dressed in a silken red suit, reveals himself as Satan. To save his soul, Jerry must present a special show in Hell in which Satan can get an apology from God (Luke Grooms) for his expulsion from Heaven.
Brandon Contreras, Terrence Mann, Kim Steele. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Jesus (Keyes), Mary (Allen), and Adam (Hackmann) take part in a weird succession of events during which Jesus is insulted and Jerry must beg for his life over a pit of flames before the action returns to Earth and we watch Jerry’s last moments as he delivers his final words, hoping for people to get along with each other.

The nonstop fountain of X-rated lyrics includes a song sung by Satan that goes on forever as he rattles off one “fu” after the other before climactically spitting out the letters “ck.” In another, the chorus, standing in the aisles, notes its limited lifestyle in “We Eat, Excrete, and Watch TV.”
Much of the fun of hearing these naughty numbers derives from their being sung with exhilarating power to Thomas’s often soaring score. I was reminded of listening in the late 1960s to the lyrics of Galt McDermott’s “Sodomy” in Hair, whose shock effect was mollified by its sweet melody.
Will Swenson, Terrence Mann, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Great costumes by Sarah Laux, wigs by David Bova and J. Jared Janas, as well as Jeff Croiter’s awesome lighting (with lots of unusual effects, such as bathing the entire set in TV “snow”), help sell the show. But it’s the exceptional ensemble, led by the white-haired Broadway veteran Mann (Cats, Les Misérables), who barely gets to sing but whose Jerry is one of the few recognizably “human” characters, and the devilishly striking, ponytailed Swenson, that makes the show memorable.
Terrence Mann, Will Swenson. Photo: Monique Carboni.
There are too many top-notch supporting performances to cite so I’ll single out only the hefty Luke Grooms, playing God in a white suit with his face painted gold, and shaking the rafters with his breathtaking tenor when he belts “It Ain’t Easy Being Me."
Terrence Mann, Jill Paice, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Someone recently noted that our current presidency is so outlandish that TV shows like “Our Cartoon President” can’t compete with the reality they’re spoofing. For all its cleverness, the same could be said of Jerry Springer—The Opera and the outlandish behavior its first act parodies. And, with Book of Mormon and other comic shows having broken so many religion-respecting standards, even the second act’s mockery of biblical figures is not as shockingly funny as it may have been when the show was first created.

Jerry Springer once said of his TV show, “I would never watch my show. I'm not interested in it. It's not aimed towards me. This is just a silly show.” Jerry Springer—The Opera has lots of good things, but it, too, is a very silly show.


Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 1

"Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?"

My plus-one, a veteran Broadway actress, texted: "I'd say 90. Loved the actors, direction, sets and costumes, and the spirit of frolic."