Off Broadway, Opera
Runs through 11 March 2018
Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42nd Street NYC
Review by Keith Paul Medelis
BOTTOM LINE: It’s Jerry Springer – The Opera, people. Imagine the most absurd and multiply by 5.
I could wax poetic about how long it has taken for Jerry Springer – The Opera to make it to New York after a meaningful stint on the West End in 2003-2005. It seems implausible that such an insane show wouldn’t have had even an Off-Off production by now considering, you know, Springer is an American icon. Oh you didn’t like that? Well, he's at least a well-known American phenomenon.
Or I could just tell you that, history be damned, Jerry Springer – The Opera rocks.
But, no that’s not a good review. Instead I could put on an endearing, professional sounding tone to compare the second act descent of this show to the contemporary condemnation of the electorate that voted for the Cheeto-in-Chief, a group of people that are reflected here in Springer’s viewing audience. After reading Naomi Klein’s remarkable exploration of Tr*mp as a brand in No is Not Enough, she points toward the basic cable personalities of people like the Now-President Orangutan and even the delightfully palatable-in-comparison Jerry Springer as key factors in the lives of the people who ticked the GOP box in 2016—their views largely shaped by these television personalities filled with rampant lies that are here condemned in a finale and an entire second act that I would be guilty of spoiling if I even mentioned the plot.
Or I could just tell you that Jerry Springer – The Opera is not to be missed. Best enjoyed with a beer from the bar and maybe a little pre-gaming.
So I guess I’ll write that the music of Richard Thomas is remarkable, from Tiffany Mann’s extraordinary rendition of “I Just Wanna Dance” that gets a partial standing ovation mid-show to Justin Keyes’ momentous “Montel’s Momentous.” The former is performed around a stripper pole, the latter in a diaper. How wonderful.
John Rando guides a huge production masterfully in Signature Theatre’s smallest space. It seems almost laughably small for the massive undertaking this turns out to be. But Derek McLane’s scenery is ripped directly from the television screen, confining us in a cold studio that always appears larger on screen. We feel as if we’ve walked into a live taping of the now off-the-air show, complete with audience Warm-Up Man (Will Swenson). When Jerry (Terrence Mann) arrives, you’re ready to shout “Jerry! Jerry!” along with the cast. Though here, it’s not the traditional mantra you might mock, but a lovingly operatic one, with Thomas’ score that relentlessly delivers for two whole hours.
Everyone in Rando’s cast is sickeningly talented. Straddling the line between this operatic score and an epic farce that’s never patronizing and always fully committed, you’ll be just as out of breath as this cast that sweats from the many, many high notes. Luke Grooms as Dwight and, later, a much more powerful figure, feels like he came right from the TV show, but someone who, in a velvet costume and wig, could just as easily go do La Traviata. Sean Patrick Doyle’s transgender Tremont feels ever so nineties, strutting through the role, falsetto and all, and then donning a pair of sunglasses for the best boy drag since Gaga’s Joe.
But Jerry Springer – The Opera is not all trash. Yes, there is a lot of trash. And even more cursing, with a particular penchant for the word “fuck.” And the tap dancing klansmen...need I say more? But there’s also an It’s a Wonderful Life-style reckoning here that delivers a solid pay off. A pay off that makes me think that after over a decade of delay, The New Group has waited until precisely the right American moment to mount this production. We need to be able to laugh at the absurdity of how an America that was fetishized on TV in the nineties is now remarkably real in 2018. I can’t wait for The Apprentice – The Opera to open in the West End in five years. And I look forward to seeing it at The New Group in 2030.
One Final Thought: in case it wasn’t obvious, see Jerry Springer the Opera. You won’t regret it.
(Jerry Springer – The Opera plays at the Signature Theatre Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through March 11, 2018. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $85 - $125. More information and tickets available at thenewgroup.org.)
Jerry Springer the Opera has music by Richard Thomas, and book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas. Directed by John Rando. Scenic Design by Derek McLane. Costume Design by Sarah Laux. Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design by Joshua D. Reid. Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky. Production Stage Manager is James Harker.
The cast is Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras, Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Justin Keyes, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terrence Mann, Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, Will Swenson and Nichole Turner.
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