“This is your Jerry Springer mooooooment,” the colorfully clad assembled chorus of flyover-state philanderers, betrayed fiancées, freaky fetishists and much more loudly intone during the New Group’s off-Broadway premiere of Richard Thomas’ 2003 opera, aptly named Jerry Springer – the Opera (book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas). And indeed they are singing for us all.
Though the show originated in the United Kingdom and, until now, has seen only a couple of concert performances in New York, it’s profoundly American, and its oddly sympathetic examination of our national sense of entitlement to fame – or at least notoriety – has kept it fresh. Directed by eclectic Broadway vet John Rando (On the Town, The Wedding Singer, Urinetown),the current production seats the audience around a square thrust stage, subject to the haranguing of Jerry’s energetically irritating Warm-Up Man (a versatile Will Swenson), just as though we were at the long-lived TV show itself (yes, still playing 15 years after the opera premiered).
During the first act, we’re treated to the usual tawdry twists and turns of a talk-show tabloid’s version of human relationships – the doofus who betrays his girlfriend with another woman, and another man; the sweet young couple, one of whom harbors a secret, unspoken kink; a fight between a housewife who dreams of becoming a pole dancer and her disapproving partner that somehow results in a bevy of Ku Klux Klan members in full regalia tap-dancing on stage – while the perpetually genial, perpetually bemused Jerry (the unflappable Terrence Mann) looks on at all these human foibles. What a piece of work is man indeed! But then, in the second act, things turn weird.
Mind you, no one denies that things were already weird. For starters, this title is literally true. Not only is the first act, at least, a startlingly accurate simulacrum of the show, it’s also an actual opera (just in case you miss the point, there’s a Valkyrie in it). Yes, the lumpenprole guests and their low-rent stories are set to an artful and often lovely pastiche of a score that draws with equal facility from classical music and Broadway melodies, all sung with as much energy, attention and care as talent and skill by the ensemble of trained singers who grace the show. Indeed, it’s the music that expresses far more of the inarticulate characters’ humanity than do their limited vocabularies, stunted horizons and impoverished imaginations – but the juxtapositions are often tremendously funny. Consider numbers like “Talk to the Hand,” “Put Your F***in’ Clothes On” and This Is My KKK Moment,” to name just a few. But increasingly, there’s pain – and a rueful recognition – in the hilarity as it becomes impossible not to empathize with the characters’ inchoate yearnings. And the counterpoint’s intensification of the hyper-real hysteria is such that you wonder why real Jerry hasn’t picked up on it, too.
That intensification reaches fruition in the second act when, thanks to an unexpected gunshot, the stakes go way up. Things get, well, supernatural, and a horde of TV zombies chanting “Eat, Excrete, Watch TV,” force Jerry to face the greatest challenge of his afterlife: reconciling an infantilized Jesus (Justin Keyes) with a sullen Satan (Swenson). As Jerry plaintively repeats, conflict resolution isn’t in his contract. But life is unfair. And so, apparently, is death.
Rando keeps the show moving at an appropriately riotous pace, but he’s not afraid to make room among the rowdiness for the more reflective comments on the society that engenders such a need for 15-second bursts of fame and the human need that underlies all the lurid stories. One of the loveliest occurs when wannabe pole dancer Shawnei (Tiffany Mann) languidly drapes the pole during what is a genuinely moving “I Just Wanna Dance.” It’s the development of these moments that makes the show ultimately and unexpectedly transcendent. The tawdry aspirations, heartrending betrayals and unspeakable yearnings of these sideshow characters are ultimately all too relatable, simply because they are aspirations, betrayals and yearnings. The secret of Jerry’s appeal is that he takes on the insanity with a disarming calm and rationality that reassures us – whether we’re on or off his stage – that we are not, after all, the embarrassing losers we fear we might be, but Everyman. That, at any rate, seems to be the promise, and whether or not the TV show delivers, the opera undoubtedly succeeds.