By: Paulanne Simmons
It’s taken fifteen years, but Jerry Springer – the Opera has finally arrived in New York City. With music and lyrics by Richard Thomas, and book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee, the show has a very British pedigree, which might seem a bit odd, considering it’s based on the “The Jerry Springer Show,” a talk show that featured guests many thought Springer had scraped from the bottom of the slimiest barrel of American culture. But, let’s face it, the Brits have always had a penchant for the worst in their American cousins.
The New Group production, directed by John Rando, certainly has enough tongue-in-sleek sliminess to get us all to hell and back (which it does) and laughing along the way (which it does for much of the time). Broadway veteran Terrance Mann plays Springer, the mild-mannered host who knows how to get the very worst out of people, and an assortment of talented actors play his guests.
These guests include Dwight (Luke Grooms), who has come on the show to confess to his fiancee, Peaches (Florrie Bagel) that he’s been cheating on her with two other women; Montel ((Justin Keyes), who wants nothing more than to make love in diapers; and Shawntel (Tiffany Mann), a zaftig beauty who longs to be a pole dancer. Her “I Just Wanna Dance” just about stops the show.
Although Steve, the security guard (Billy Hepfinger), tries to keep the guests from working their problems out physically onstage, the Warm-Up Man (Will Swenson) encourages the audience (actors sit in the first row) to express their shock and disapproval. There’s also a bit of a conflict between the overenthusiastic Warm-Up Man and Jerry, who can’t stand the Warm-Up Man calling him “bro” all the time. But there’s not much of a plot.
The musical gets by, however, thanks to the lively music (a combination of cinematic schmaltz, ersatz opera and a bit of pop/rock), the excellent performances and the over-the-top satire. But at the end of act one, Jerry gets shot by a guest who was aiming for the members of the Ku Klux Klan, and the musical takes a surprising and unfortunate turn.
In act two, we are no longer gawking at “The Jerry Springer Show,” but rather watching Springer in purgatory trying to get back to earth and avoid the fires of hell (presided over by Swenson, now Satan). The guests on this otherworldly show include Jesus, Mary, Adam and Eve. God also makes an appearance, complaining about how “It Ain’t Easy Being Me.” The problem with all this is not blasphemy or even vulgarity (by now we’re more than used to that, starting with the ensemble singing about lesbian dwarfs), but simply that the interest of the show is in all those weird characters we’ve lost in the second act. And biblical characters just can’t fill their shoes.
Jerry Springer was never really the star of the show that bore his name. And no one knew that better than Springer, who was adept at asking the suggestive question and moving aside so his guests could take center stage. So by the time Jerry gets back home in this opera, many of us have lost interest. Who cares what happens to Jerry? We want to know more about those lesbian dwarfs!
Jerry Springer – The Opera is extended through April 1 at The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42 St., www.thenewgroup.org.
Photo: Monique Carboni