When Jerry Springer – The Opera premiered at the National Theatre 15 years ago, the Kardashians were a mere gleam in reality television’s eye, and Springer’s talk show was the emblem of a culture turning trashy. The New Group’s vibrant, hilarious, and inventively staged off-Broadway production preserves what was so smart about the original. Mining comedy from the dissonance between high and low culture, the mock Springer show features operatic music, unprintable lyrics, and a lineup of would-be strippers and cheating spouses ready to wrestle their rivals to the ground.
Today the actual, low-rent Jerry Springer show has been overshadowed by more aspirational (although gauche) series like the Real Housewives franchise. But the opera is more relevant than ever. When the fictional Jerry’s warm-up man tells him, “You could run for Senate or even president,” it’s just the most glaring of the lines from the original musical that now leap out at us, a sign that reality has caught up with satire.
The composer, Richard Thomas, and playwright, Stewart Lee, have made only minor tweaks for this version, which is sung through with music ranging from arias to bouncy Broadway-style tunes. The cast arrives solemnly singing “Je- e-e-ry,” sounding like a choral group devoted to Jesus.
They are actually part of a boisterous carnival atmosphere. Director John Rando creates a big feeling on a small stage, with a bare brick wall as a backdrop, and only a few chairs and a stripper pole as props. Actors sitting in the front rows leap on stage, creating the intimate feeling that we’re all at the taping of a Springer show.
Jerry (Terrence Mann) and Jonathan, the warm-up Man (Will Swenson, deliciously smarmy, with a devilish goatee) bring on guests confessing their guilty secrets. Shawntel (Tiffany Mann, a standout among the accomplished singers) longs to be a stripper despite her Rubenesque body. Dreamgirls style, she belts out a heartfelt I Just Want to Dance. Montel uses the Springer show to tell his girlfriend he’s turned on by wearing a diaper. Dwight is sleeping with three people, including a transsexual person.
A few lines, such as “chick with a dick”, haven’t aged well in an era of higher LGBTQ awareness. But most of the satire is breathtakingly prescient. Hooded Ku Klux Klan members run down the aisle and onto the stage to form a chorus line singing the show’s catchiest, Broadway-inspired tune: “This is our Jerry Springer moment/We don’t want this moment to die.” The cheerful song-and-dance takes on an eerie undertone at a time when white supremacists have so recently been marching on the streets.
Jerry is accidentally shot at the end of act one, and after that the opera turns from satire to fantasy, with Jerry in hell while God and Satan fight over his soul. There are some vivid moments. Dwight (Luke Grooms) shows up as God, singing an operatic It Ain’t Easy Being Me. That was funnier in earlier versions when God was dressed as Elvis. Jerry grapples with the morality of his career, and the musical takes on an earnestness that doesn’t fit well with the satire of the first act.
The writers have added a song for Jerry, to little effect. He still mainly speaks his lines, unlike the rest of the cast. The most stunning of those 15-year-old lines feels as if it was dropped in five minutes ago: “I’d like to add my name to the list of celebrities calling for tighter gun control.” Now that “The president and the porn star” is a serious topic for cable news, and not the title of a Springer episode, this comic opera has taken on an exhilarating new life.
- Jerry Springer - The Opera is showing at Pershing Square Signature Center, New York, through March 11