Buoyed by Ben Brantley’s love-letter-wrapped-in-a-Valentine to JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, should the show move to Broadway from the intimate Signature Theatre it now inhabits?
Some will say no because a rave from The Times doesn’t mean nearly what it used to. Perhaps, but JERRY SPRINGER should stay put because Broadway is now mostly a tourist business — and many from the Heartland aren’t going to take this show to their hearts.
Although this isn’t THE RING CYCLE, the musical does make good on the last two words of its title. Most everything is sung in that grand and grandiose manner for which opera is famous – albeit spoofingly.
Speaking of “famous,” that’s what more and more people want to be these days. So in the opening moments, a bevy of tired-and-poors sing “I want to be on TV! Choose me!” For many of this country’s citizens, appearing on THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW would be The Apex of Their Life. Let’s face it: it’s all the fame they’ll ever be able to get.
So when Jerry brags that his guests will be housed in a three-star hotel, we may feel that it’s a star or two lower than we’d like or endure. From the guests’ faces, we see that they view such lodging as hitting the jackpot.
“Bring on the losers,” the chorus out-and-out admits. Too often today, actors appearing in Shakespeare and Shaw make no effort to reveal their tattoos which are plainly anachronistic. Here, anyone with a tattoo is right at home.
That one unbalanced man wears a basketball uniform top with Dennis Rodman’s name on the back is apt, for the NBA star has been one of the league’s craziest. The women who have runs in stockings aren’t making a fashion statement; their sheers suffer from sheer negligence. Note, too, the abundance of overweight characters. This is one opera that won’t be over until MANY fat ladies sing.
After the chosen few have been selected, Jerry enters with an “Okay, all right, thank you, thank you,” in utterly dispassionate fashion. Springer knows his lines but has forgotten how to say them convincingly. This is, however, an understandable occupational hazard when you’ve said the same thing hundreds of times.
Springer has, for his version of a reality show has been pretty unreal since its debut in 1991. The host has been plying his wares in Ohio – the same state where BYE BYE BIRDIE takes place, where those “laughing, singing, dancing, grinning morons” of whom Mr. McAfee complained are now all grown up and here.
Jerry does show some emotion when he feigns confusion after an adulterer ‘fesses up. “Why would you do this?” he says in a hushed tone as if he were mystified. Come on — Jerry knows full well – as do the guest and we.
Here’s a musical that requires more-than-usual fight choreography. And yet, when all hydrogen-bomb level hell breaks loose and fists fly high and low, Jerry looks at us in all innocence and says “What’s going on?”
The playgoers at the performance I attended knew what was going on as soon as a young man told his girlfriend “I want to be your baby.” They knew he didn’t mean it as a term of endearment. He minimized his soon-to-be-divulged secret as “a little thing, a harmless thing,” but many in the audience won’t take to his fetish.
“Scatting” is a term in music where people sing such non-lyrics as “doo-doo”; that happens here, too, although both scatting and doo-doo are used on another level.
Fetishes are easy targets, though. Many who don’t share this particular one will roar with laughter and relish the opportunity to feel superior. Those who share the guest’s inclination may guffaw even louder in order to deflect away any suspicion.
That’s the way Act One goes. This description alone might convince musical-craving tourists to avoid this show as much as a sleepover on Rikers Island. And yet, those who do attend and are on the fence about leaving at intermission may well find minutes into Act Two that they’ll race-walk out of the theater.
For authors Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee obviously knew what we’d inferred: parodying THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW itself for another hour would get wearing. What they’ve dreamed up instead, however – Jesus Christ and even God show up as Jerry’s guests — will seem much worse to many. And considering the way that Jesus handles a certain situation, He could be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
In terms of obscenities, JERRY SPRINGER makes THE BOOK OF MORMON look like, well, the actual Book of Mormon. Even if the most used obscenity were downgraded into “fudge” (or upgraded, depending on your point-of-view), you’d still have situations for which a triple-X rating would be a euphemism.
Springer does insist that “I give a platform for the dispossessed. I give them a voice!” And the voices are excellent: Florrie Bagel, Billy Hepfinger and Beth Kirkpatrick proficiently do their profane opera trills. Many religious people have been saying for centuries “God is good,” and that’s true here, thanks to Luke Grooms. At one point he holds a high note for a sustained number of measures, and of course the audience whoops and applauds at the mid-way point. (Nothing against the actor who’s just doing his job, but why are people so impressed by a long-held note? This vocal pyrotechnic happens SO often in contemporary musical theater that by now theatergoers should realize from its ubiquity that it isn’t as hard as they apparently think it is.)
When Will Swenson gets a chance to play Satan (yes, that Satan), he’s as expert at singing as he is at handling a cane. But try to find a song that would spur you to press “Repeat” on a CD player. Many, many imperfect rhymes mar the lyric craft, too.
Sean Patrick Doyle dances a low-rent “Music and the Mirror.” But the choreography is meant to be purposely conventional, on the level of what used to pass muster on ‘50s TV variety shows.
That Terrence Mann resembles Springer is a plus; that he perfectly mimics the man’s seen-it-all, heard-it-all, more- than-all demeanor is his great accomplishment. Near the end of the show he asks the audience, a la vaudevillian Ted Lewis, “Is everybody happy?” Well, a few may have been at the performance I attended, but at the curtain calls the standing ovation was hardly all-inclusive.
Incidentally, Mann will only be on the premises until March 11. At least the worthy Matt McGrath will be succeeding him until the run ends on April 1.
After that date, you may never have the chance to see JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA. It’s there for the taking — if you can take it.