Jerry Springer – The Opera is making its Off-Broadway debut in a production from The New Group, but this is not new material. First performed at London’s National Theatre fifteen years ago, the opera is both an indictment and a celebration of the late 1990s-early 2000s obsession with tabloid journalism. Writers Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee revel in the depravity of Springer’s guests while reminding us that Springer sees his show as a platform for the disenfranchised; they want to have their “crack-whore” cake and eat it, too. It’s a pleasurable experience insofar as it translates a Springer episode into a musical language that draws from British pop-opera. Once that premise has settled, though, there’s another hour of the opera and the jokes have already been had.
The opera is structured in four acts, with the first comprising half the opera’s run time. In this act – essentially an hour-long Springer episode set to music – all the hallmarks of Jerry’s show are present: there’s a man who is unapologetically sleeping with two women and a “chick with a dick,” there’s a man who tells his girlfriend he is cheating on her because she doesn’t understand his diaper fetish, and there’s a woman whose abusive husband doesn’t want her to become a pole dancer. They all fight, shake their asses, and refuse to be anyone other than who they are. This unapologetic ownership of their individuality, in spite of the ensemble-as-studio-audience’s vocal disapproval, is unexpectedly admirable. When the aforementioned pole dancer, Shawntel (Tiffany Mann), sings a soaring aria entitled, “I Just Wanna Dance” while she’s writhing on a stripper pole, it’s clear she feels empowered; her dancing is an extension of herself. The act culminates in a KKK tap dance during which Jerry is shot by a disgruntled guest and sent to hell.
The first act thrives by heightening the familiar Springer tropes with music. Thomas’ score draws on both popular and classical music and blends them in a contemporary sound, or at least contemporary to 2003. The word “opera” is placed in the title to commingle the lowbrow connotations of Jerry Springer with the highbrow connotations of opera. What is presented is closer to a sung-through musical. Thomas’ and Lee’s libretto abstains from the pseudo-poetic abstraction of many present-day opera librettos. There is an overabundance of profanity, but it doesn’t feel like something uncalled for; it’s how the characters speak. It is a little troubling that in 2018, we are encountering a piece of writing that uses a transsexual character as a joke and repeatedly, as mentioned above, refers to her as a “chick with a dick.” Great strides have been made in gender awareness over the past fifteen years and this made the scene feel glaringly dated.
In hell, Jerry is forced to perform a mirror version of his show in order for Satan (Will Swenson) to send him back to earth. Many of Jerry’s guests from the previous act come back as dead versions of themselves and the same thing is enacted again, with a Satanic sizzle. This section of the opera is less inspired. The jokes don’t carry the same zing and the limits of the guests’ absurdity have been reached. The conflict is also too easily resolved: all Jerry has to do to go back to earth is read the cards Satan places in front of him. There’s very little tension, because Jerry’s return to earth never truly seems in jeopardy.
Jerry is the only character who speaks throughout the opera and Mann is never given the opportunity to let his powerful voice loose. Will Swenson, in double roles as Jerry’s Warm-Up Man and Satan, is charmingly smug. He is comfortable in the roles, both physically and vocally, and exudes a key seductiveness. Jill Paice as Baby Jane, an adult baby, finds a piercing truthfulness in even the most insane lyrics (e.g. “Mama gimme smack on the asshole”). Her voice is crystalline and strong and she is convincing in every moment, regardless of the wildness around her.
Directed by John Rando, on a Derek McLane set that apes the Springer set with some tricks up its sleeve, the production feels too big for the space in which it’s presented. The New Group’s successful revival of Sweet Charity in 2016 was perfectly calibrated to the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Its intimacy was integral to the way the story was told. Here, the stage is smaller and the cast is bigger. They’re also oversized characters and it’s a very physical production. The effect is that the playing space can’t quite contain everything that’s happening, but maybe that’s the point: you can’t put these people in neat little boxes. They’ll break out and smash them to the ground and say “fuck you” while they do it.
Jerry Springer – The Opera runs to March 11, 2018. More production info can be found here.