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Jerry Springer – The Opera

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 22, 2018

Will Swenson and Terrence Mann
Photo by Monique Carboni

Remember The Book of Mormon, the musical that The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley called "blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak?" Well, when it comes to blasphemy, scurrility, and foul-mouthedness, The Book of Mormon can't hold a candle to Jerry Springer – The Opera, opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center in a production by The New Group. It is a dizzying explosion of F-bombs and impiety that is being performed by the best collection of singers to inhabit a stage this side of the Metropolitan Opera.

Call it the opéra bouffe equivalent of entertainment wrestling layered with obscenities and poop jokes: Offenbach meets WWE meets WTF. (Fun fact. The word "fuck" appears 102 times in the script). This is what you can expect from Jerry Springer – The Opera, a show that is exhaustingly engaged in a tug-of-war between the two competing sides of the dash in its title. Wallowing in the mud to the left, you've got syndicated television host Jerry Springer (played with a sense of above-it-all calm by Terrence Mann), along with a collection of his show's guests, all ready and eager to confess their fetishes and infidelities to the pumped studio audience and the folks at home. And to the right, you've got those same folks performing composer Richard Thomas's soaring and, yes, pretty much operatic score. Well, dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians (that's an oft-repeated quote from the show, folks) if that ain't one humdinger of a combo meal.

So, will you like it? Certainly it did well in London, where it originated and picked up four Oliviers in 2004. Musically, it is definitely a wow, and the company of 17 is packed with glorious singers, both individually (I'll single out Beth Kirkpatrick, Jill Paice, and Luke Grooms among the standouts), and collectively, with some great choral work. And on the musical theater singing side, in addition to Terrence Mann you've got the excellent Will Swenson in the dual roles of Warm-Up Man in Act I and Satan in Act II. It sometimes makes for a crowded stage in the relatively small performance space, but Richard Thomas's music could not be in better hands or voices. Even the four-person orchestra manages to provide a full sound accompanying the 41 songs that make up the score.

But then there are the book and lyrics, which Mr. Thomas also wrote along with Stewart Lee. It's low, low comedy of the frat-boy, potty-mouthed middle school kids, wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap type. And it is unrelenting. Here's a sample from the opening number, called "Overtly-ture" (a portmanteau, perhaps, of "overture" and "immature"): "I used to be a lap dancing pre-operative transsexual/A chick, a chick, a chick with a dick." Or the lovely little ditty "Montel's Momentous," which goes "I just wanna shit my pants/Oh, I just wanna shit my pants/Oh, poop it in my Calvin Kleins." And there are lots more along these lines. (Did I mention the "Springtime For Hitler"-like number featuring dancing Ku Klux Klansmen that ends Act I?)

For the blasphemy bits, you'll have to wait until Act II, which takes place in Hell and has Jerry Springer moderating a confrontation between Satan on one side and God and Jesus on the other. Despite the change in locale, the format is rather similar to that of his TV show; indeed, the characters from Act I (e. g. Montel, aka Diaper Man; the multiple philanderer Dwight; and the fighting couple Chucky and Shawntel) show up, respectively, as Jesus, God, and Adam and Eve. It turns out, the immortals of Western religion are not dissimilar to those of Greek and Roman mythology, as flawed and as human as the rest of us. As Jerry puts it: "I don't want to serve in Hell. That would be a sideways move."

All in all, it's a lot to take in. Going back to The New York Times review of The Book of Mormon, a show this is most likely to be compared with, Ben Brantley wrote that regardless of whatever offense it offers up, "its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show." No one will ever say that about Jerry Springer – The Opera. While director John Rando keeps the cast and the action flying at breakneck speed, he cannot fully solve the underlying dilemma, which is how do you satirize something as over-the-top as the actual Jerry Springer Show?

Jerry Springer – The Opera
Through March 11
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral