BY ELYSE TREVERS
When you buy your ticket for “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” you are really getting two shows for the price of one.
The first half of the musical presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center is a ribald, often outrageous parody of The Jerry Springer Show. For more than 25 years, Springer, a pioneer of reality TV, has hosted a TV show that features ordinary people who willingly share their relationships and secrets. Often they curse and fight on camera as they reveal unsavory activities and lurid thoughts, adulterous affairs and illegitimate children.
Jerry’s guests seem to relish their 15 minutes of fame while the audience spurs them on, cheering and booing.
Acts I and II introduce three separate groups of guests, each with their own secrets, quite outrageous and even absurd. Despite the absurdity, it is often funny. And despite his Inner Valkyrie, who reveals Jerry’s doubts about what he is doing, he suggests he has a higher purpose saying that everyone, even the marginalized and disenfranchised, need a voice.
Then a guest in an adult diaper aiming at a group of KKK members doing a dance (Shades of Mel Brooks!) shoots Jerry. After intermission, Jerry is now with Satan who threatens him unless he agrees to host “Jerry Springer in Hell” to get God to apologize to Satan for kicking him out of Heaven. Jerry reassures us that this is all happening in his head, especially when the warm-up man who he fired (the talented irrepressible Will Swenson) reappears as Satan.
The guests (the performers in the first acts now in second roles) include Adam, Eve, Jesus, Mary and then even God shows up. The second half of the show isn’t as much fun since the play moralizes. Jerry thinks he can unite people with love and understanding especially when God asks him to stay and become his right hand man. “Everything that lives in holy,” the performers sing.
Although my companion, a Springer watcher, declared the show “dumb,” I found myself almost embarrassingly smiling and, at times, even laughing aloud. Unlike TV, “Jerry Springer: The Opera” has no censor, and the language is quite profane. Sometimes it comes unexpectedly in the midst of a lovely melody and lyric. It is sometimes shocking, but then often funny. The material can also be offensive to many. When Jesus complains about no one helping him when he was on the cross, he’s told “It was over 2000 years ago. Get over it.” What’s even more jarring is that the show really is an opera and some extremely talented performers with beautiful voices sing the profane descriptions. So if you are offended by very specific language, this is not the show for you.
Terrence Mann as Jerry is the only character who doesn’t sing in the first half. Mann is genial and extremely likable and fortunately sings in the second half.
Some of the songs by Richard Thomas with book & additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, seem like arias for a genuine opera until they veer off into dark subjects and profanities. One need only to look at the list of songs like “Sadverts 1” and “We Eat, Excrete and Watch TV.” to get the general tone of the show. A few melodies, however, really highlight the talented singers. Luke Grooms is impressive as he sings “It Ain’t So Easy Being Me” as God is hearing “millions of voices making the wrong choices. Tiffany Mann stops the show as Shawntel with “I Just Wanna Dance,” expressing her dream of being a pole dancer.
Directed by John Rando (On The Town, Urinetown) “Jerry Springer: The Opera” has just been extended. The show will never be family fare. In fact, it even makes “Book of Mormon” seem tame. However, it certainly is an experience and will give you a lot to talk about.
But be forewarned – this is not a show for the prudish or faint of heart. You have to be tolerant and totally open minded. I watched an older gentleman in the audience who didn’t crack a smile for the first 45 minutes. Yet eventually, even he began to laugh.