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11.8.08

My Jerry Springer Moment

Lawrence Redmond (Jerry Springer) in Jerry Springer: The Opera, Studio Theater, 2008 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Lawrence Redmond (Jerry Springer) in Jerry Springer: The Opera, Studio Theater, 2008 (photo by Scott Suchman)
It was only a matter of time before Jerry Springer: The Opera came to Washington, although the Ionarts junket to Santa Fe Opera coincided with last month's opening at Studio Theater. You may recall the scandalous premiere of this British musical, one of any number of trashy, headline-grabbing "opera" gimmicks in recent years. The work, a collaboration of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, was an attempt to merge the infamous American talk show with the exalted emotional expression of opera. It is a marriage made in hell: both trash talk show and opera favor a hysterical tone, as far over the top as one can go, with narratives at the extremes of human existence that often defy credulity.

Springer's second act, which casts God, Jesus, Mary, and Satan as guests on an infernal edition of The Jerry Springer Show, has drawn protests of outrage from conservative Christian groups, something that has dogged the show in all of its subsequent openings. No doubt about it, Jerry Springer is foul-mouthed, outrageous, and blasphemous. As satire of Christianity, Springer is ham-handed, a blunt hammer instead of a scalpel. If the best satire knows its target, Springer is wide of the mark. For example, Jesus says, "Talk to the stigmata" as he shows his hand, but the stigmata are mystical wounds that other people receive in imitation of Jesus' wounds -- Jesus did not receive the stigmata. For a show that exults in deflating piety, the pious ending reconciling God and Satan with the platitude "There are no absolutes of good and evil" rang hypocritical. Besides, after two hours of lines like "three-nipple cousin-fucker" and "barbed wire up the ass," could anyone be expected to take the moralizing seriously?

Bobby Smith (Jonathan/The Devil) in Jerry Springer: The Opera, Studio Theater, 2008 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Bobby Smith (Jonathan/The Devil) in Jerry Springer: The Opera, Studio Theater, 2008 (photo by Scott Suchman)
So, those upset by the anti-Christian bits or the vulgarity should lighten up and those who are looking for a philosophical message should forget it, which is pretty much the same formula for actually being able to enjoy Springer's television show. As heard on Saturday night, the score had a few hints of something like opera or classical music in the opening sequence (a touch of Mozart's Requiem Mass?), but the musical idiom is firmly Broadway and jazz in flavor. The speaking role of Jerry Springer, played by Lawrence Redmond with uncanny timing ("Chucky, you seem upset" [by your wife's embarrassing admission on national television]), stands outside the all-sung action of the rest of the show. At points, Jerry's morals are critiqued by a character he calls his "inner Valkyrie," sung beautifully by one of the two really operatic voices in this production, soprano Patricia Portillo. The best singing of the evening came from Michael Nansel, who applied a resonant, operatically trained bass voice to the roles of Dwight, the first guest on the show in the first act, and God in the second act.

The quality of the rest of the singing was appropriate to the absurdity of the show, which first sets to music a typical Jerry Springer Show. A series of guests make embarrassing, televised confessions to the people who love them. Dwight tells his fiancée, Peaches (Mary Gresock), that he has been screwing not only her best friend Zandra (Kristen Jepperson) but also a black transsexual named Tremont (the visually convincing and vocally high-flying Aaron Reeder). A fat Filipino named Montel (the sweet-voiced and guilelessly smiling Ron Curameng) tells his girlfriend Andrea (valiantly sung by Janine Gulisano-Sunday) that he is a diaper fetishist and has an infantalist friend, the pathetic Baby Jane (Florrie Bagel). Finally, a fed-up wife, Shawntell (a high soprano part sung by the light soubrette voice of Rachel Zampelli), tells her husband, Chucky (played by understudy Alan Hoffman on Saturday night), that she wants to be a stripper.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Singing and Zinging (Washington Post, July 29)

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts, 'Jerry Springer' May Be Unholy, But Sales Are Divine (Washington Post, July 24)

Peter Marks, Actor Has Springer in His Step (Washington Post, July 20)
The other lead role is Jerry's warm-up guy, Jonathan, played with pathetic self-importance by Bobby Smith, who gets his revenge in the second act as the Devil torturing Jerry. The chorus takes the part of the rabid, profane audience, seated in the first rows of the house and singing in often complex harmonies. Besides singing well and with impressive strength, members of the chorus had unforgettable turns in a tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan number (Mel Brooks would be so proud) and a curtain call number as tap-dancing Jerry Springers (hilarious choreography by Matthew Gardiner). Piano-conductor Christopher Youstra, hidden from view backstage, somehow kept the eight-player band on track with the singers, for the most part. Giorgos Tsappas's set is a convincing reproduction of a television studio set, and Kristopher Castle's costumes most definitely say "white trash." It is all brought together by Keith Alan Baker's direction in a style that is in your face, visually active, and ultimately exhausting, but never dull.

In the second act, the chorus and all the characters return to assist in the judgment of Jerry in hell. It would be too weighty a conclusion for such a grotesquely silly piece, except that, as noted above, it only becomes more irreverent and less actually about anything theological, philosophical, or serious. In that spirit, Jerry Springer: The Opera offers an evening of hilarity and groan-inducing one-liners ("I can't go to hell! I'm Jewish!"). It will also certainly exceed your expectations as to how much of the book could possibly be taken up with naughty words.

The run of Jerry Springer: The Opera has been extended at Studio Theater's Metheny Theater through August 31 September 7.

2 comments:

lynn said...

I appreciated this review, since I think I read positive ones (which I could not take to heart) in both the NY Times and Washington Post. Perhaps it is only the dyspepsia brought on by a recent life and death struggle with another Henry James novel, but my opinion remains firmly that an enlightening dissection of a cultural phenomenon cannot be done from outside that culture. To a thoughtful American, Jerry Springer might, indeed, be a fascinating symbol of any number of modern, disturbing qualities about our culture; but to those like the British creators of the play looking at us from outside (who have never employed a kind and loving babysitter, or worked with a well-meaning client, who enjoyed the show), Jerry Springer is a horrifying exemplar of a civilization in utter decline. My guess is that among our own audiences this play appeals to the equivalent American intellectual class that has never had a sympathetic conversation with its babysitters (excuse me; "nannies") or clients. I haven't seen the play, but am guessing that I would prefer the 5 minute Springer take-off done on the Simpsons 10 years ago.

Michael Lodico said...

Hi, I live a block or so from the normally quiet theatre where this "opera" is presented and am equally surprised every time crowds flow out onto the street when the show lets out.